A year from the Olympics, she looked not only unbeatable but otherworldly. Margins of victory that bordered on the ridiculous. Tricks so tough they put her in the conversation with the men. Expectations that seemed to grow by the day.
Six years before Simone Biles was re-writing gymnastics’ record books, extending her two-year winning streak Saturday night with her third consecutive U.S. title, there was Yuna Kim.
The South Korean figure skater would go on to win gold at the Vancouver Olympics, posting records that might never be broken along the way. It’s her path that Biles hopes to emulate, not that of would-be champions like the 1980 Soviet hockey team, wrestler Alexander Karelin, decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson and figure skater Michelle Kwan.
Can’t misses a year before the Olympics, they came up short, done in by the pressure, felled by injury or surpassed by a late-rising rival.
“We never want this to happen to Simone,” women’s national team coordinator Martha Karolyi said.
Biles has won every meet she’s entered the past two years, often by jaw-dropping margins. The two-time defending world champ claimed her latest U.S. crown by almost five points, an unheard-of margin in a sport where medals usually are decided by mere decimal points.
She posted three scores of 15.85 or better, while the other 15 gymnasts at the U.S. championships combined for only three scores of 15.5 or greater.
It’s not as if this was a weak field, either, with London Olympic champion Gabby Douglas and fellow Fierce Fiver Aly Raisman on the floor with Biles.
“That’s pretty ridiculous, yes,” Biles acknowledged. “Again, I just keep shocking myself because I don’t think I’m that capable.”
Forget the staggering amount of difficulty Biles packs into her routines or the jeweler’s precision with which she does them. It’s her obliviousness to her stranglehold on the sport, as well as her and her coach’s refusal to look over their shoulders, that could take her to the top of the podium when so many others have fallen short.
Nor does she much care.
“I don’t watch everybody in the world. Just like she kind of unplugs from gymnastics out of the gym, I do as well because I have a family,” said Boorman, who has coached Biles for her entire career. “So when I go home, I try not to do gymnastics. I don’t watch gym videos.
“I think that’s kind of what keeps us where we are,” Boorman added. “Yes, we get nervous, but we just focus on her and her gymnastics. Not who can she beat or who might beat her. It’s just about her thing.”
Other gymnasts are obsessed with checking out what the Russians or Romanians or Chinese are doing. Or doing frequent refreshes of their Instagram and Twitter accounts to see what’s being said about them and the competition.
When Biles finishes her workouts, you can find her lounging at the pool. Or hanging out with her younger sister.
“She thinks I’m her chauffeur,” Biles said.
“People are like, `What about this (gymnast)?’ I have no idea!” she said. “I was at training then I went home, had dinner and went to bed, I don’t know!”
That’s not to say Biles doesn’t care. She cares very much, but her priorities are different. Instead of compiling medals and titles, she’d rather focus on the performances that get her all those prizes.
And on the rare occasions she strays from that, Boorman or Karolyi are quick to pull her back into line.
“It’s always a combination,” Karolyi said. “Physically, to make sure you stay disciplined with your life and your training schedule to keep up the skill level and the physical fitness level. And then mentally, you have to just brush everything off to the side and think about your goal and don’t get disturbed by being named Superman or whatever.”
A year out, Superman may have a great ring to it. But Olympic champion will sound better, and that’s a title that will last a lifetime.
This article was republished with permission from the original author, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today.