Last week in Nanning, China, Simone Biles won four world championship gold medals, locking down the team championship, the individual all-around title, and the beam and floor exercise apparatus finals. (She also came very close to a fifth on vault, taking the silver.) Biles has now won more world championship gold medals than any other U.S. gymnast (she has six including last year’s haul, putting her ahead of Shannon Miller) and won more golds than any female gymnast at a single world championships since Ludmilla Tourischeva in 1974. These accomplishments would cap off many a gymnastics career, but with two years to go until the Rio Olympics, the 17-year-old Texan seems to be just getting started.
In China, the loudest cheers during the women’s competitions were for the hometown girls (naturally) and Biles. While the former demands no explanation, Biles was a fan favorite due to the sheer difficulty and amplitude of her skills. On vault, she launches higher and flips farther than any other gymnast (save perhaps McKayla Maroney, who was back in the States recovering from knee surgery). On beam, she attacks her skills with vigor, especially her dismount series. She does a much harder pass than any other gymnast on that event—two back flips to a full twisting double back—and does it as well as it has ever been done. Biles uses the end of the beam as a launch pad, lifting off into the somersaults. It’s such a hard dismount that you could be forgiven for doing it with poor form—with knees pulled apart the way that Dominique Dawes performed the series in the mid-1990s—but even on the hardest acrobatics, Biles keeps tight form and shape.
And floor. Not only does Biles do four of the hardest passes in the women’s competition, she does it with the sort of ease that suggests the potential for more—more twists, more rotations. She doesn’t take more than a few running steps into her double twisting double somersault and yet it flies up high. She completes her flips and twists well before she lands, dropping out of the sky with her chest up, sometimes with a small bound backward. Her power cup runneth over, as you can see in a video from this August.
Biles is such an exceptional gymnast with such prodigious talent that discussion of her accomplishments and abilities is often decontextualized from the competition. And in a sense, that is fair. She does not have a direct challenger at the moment. Biles can’t be beaten by any other gymnast unless she first beats herself, or gets injured. She is seemingly above the fray.
But Biles’ success comes at a moment when the U.S. program’s overall dominance also seems inevitable, and the women’s field is less competitive than ever. This year, the Americans won the team competition by 6.7 points, which is a far cry from the 0.1 winning margin for the Chinese men over Japan. On the men’s side, the medals were spread out among several countries, including places like Croatia and Hungary. With regards to the women, all of the medals save one were won by the four traditional powers—the U.S., China, Russia, and Romania.
Back in 2010, it didn’t seem that the U.S. would be able to steamroll the competition as they are doing now. That was the year that Russian world champion Aliya Mustafina made her debut on the international stage. Mustafina was 16, talented, and almost as dominant as Biles. At her first championships, she won the all-around title and qualified for all four apparatus finals—which Biles also did during her rookie year in 2013. She also led her Russian squad to the team gold over the United States—the first time in the post-Soviet era that the Russian women had ever won the overall title. Though Mustafina didn’t pick up as many individual gold medals as Biles won in Nanning, she won three silvers in addition to the team and all-around title—one in every event except beam. Her performance in Rotterdam made her seem like the female gymnast to beat two years out of the Olympics.
Her dominance was cut short less than a year later when she tore her ACL on vault at the European championships. Though Mustafina recovered in time to win the most medals of any gymnast at the 2012 Olympics—including the uneven bars gold—the injury halted her march toward dominance. She never regained her full strength on the leg events, floor and vault.
In 2014, four years after her Rotterdam triumphs, Mustafina is no longer surrounded by a strong Russian team. She is the Russian team. Since she won her Olympic medals, she has not had a break. Mustafina has competed at nearly every competition in the past two years despite dealing with ankle issues and other physical ailments. The rest of the Russian squad that had showed so much promise in Rotterdam and London has either been injured or failed to live up to its potential.
Though the U.S. was beset by injuries shortly before this year’s championships, it was still able to field a world-beating team. The Russians, on the other hand, had to call Tatiana Nabieva out of retirement to flesh out a competitive roster for this meet. (Nabs, as she is affectionately called by fans, is quite fun and quite unserious at times. At the recent Russian Cup, midway through her floor exercise she simply stopped doing choreography and picked a wedgie.) And Larisa Iordache, like Mustafina, shoulders almost all the responsibility for the Romanian team. Even the top gymnastics countries just don’t have the depth and bench to compete with the Americans.
Throughout the championships, many a foreign coach, official, and journalist told me that it’s all about the numbers. The U.S. has them—not just the population, which is rivaled only by China and Russia when it comes to countries with strong gymnastics traditions, but the thousands of gyms. This network of clubs acts as an enormous dragnet on talent. (The “numbers” explanation came up so often, I was tempted to start rapping Mos Def’s “Mathematics.”) By contrast, Romania has just a handful of gyms left. And though Russia’s gymnastics program is well-funded at the moment, most of that investment seems to be happening at the top, not at the grass-roots level. China, while not lacking for funds or gymnasts, has struggled to develop tumblers and vaulters. Chinese proficiency on bars and beam was enough to give them the silver in Nanning but without developing “power” gymnasts for the other events, they’ll be outgunned in team competitions by the U.S.
Still, Biles was under pressure in Nanning. She entered this competition with extreme expectations—to lead the team to gold, to win the all-around, and to get the gold in multiple apparatus finals. Like Mustafina and Iordache, Biles was the star of her country’s team. But unlike them, she was not its only hope.
Some of the predictions made of Biles—namely, that she could win the all-around even if she fell (or even if she fell more than once)—did not bear out. For one thing, she didn’t fall. For another, Iordache kept things close, making the all-around a much more competitive meet than the team finals. And that makes sense. Most of the women’s teams can’t field strong lineups on every event, but they each have at least one noteworthy athlete. Russia has Mustafina, Romania has Iordache, and China has Yao Jinnan.
Heading into the final rotation of the all-around, Biles was leading the Romanian by a slim margin. Far from being able to fall and still win, Biles had to do a good—not great—floor routine to take the gold. Which she, of course, did.
But the closeness of the rankings doesn’t mean that Iordache can defeat Biles in the future if they both hit their routines. The Romanian star seems to be performing at the edge of her abilities. She does some very hard passes on floor but has to run nearly to the edge to pull around those somersaults. She lands deep into the corner, practically out of bounds, with her chest low. She is capable of a difficult beam set but doesn’t hit it consistently. (Iordache had been favored to win beam this year but took herself out of the medals with a fall in the final.) Two years ago there was talk of her upgrading her vault to the same 2.5 twister Biles performs but such an upgrade has not yet materialized. She has shown the greatest improvement on bars, and she still might be able to add a few tenths in difficulty. But it seems like the skills of gymnasts like Iordache and Mustafina are mostly set for the coming years. The most they can do is tinker with combinations of elements for small incremental increases in difficulty and start value.
Biles, by contrast, is nowhere near the edge of her abilities. All four of her routines are easy for her (though she showed some nerves on beam in team and all-around finals), indicating that she has plenty of capacity to add difficulty. After dealing with minor shoulder problems, she downgraded her bar routine for this competition. She said she plans to add those bar skills back into her program. She is also training harder vaults for the 2015 season. And on floor, though she already does four of the hardest passes in the world, she is intent on upgrading. During the mixed zone after the meet, she mentioned all kinds of new possibilities on that event. It is very likely that Biles will bring higher start values to competition in 2015. Unlike her nearest competitors, she is capable of increasing her difficulty by leaps and bounds instead of just incrementally.
So will Biles continue to dominate into 2015 and the Olympics? If the fate of Mustafina—who, despite her setbacks, will eventually retire as one of the all-time greats—is any indication, it’s unwise to make such bold predictions. A lot can happen in the career of a gymnast, even one as talented and carefully coached as Biles. But if she does continue her winning streak until Rio, it’s clear that she’ll do so as a part of a dominant American program. She’ll be Team USA’s star—not its savior.