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Monday, Nov 18, 2019

Simone Biles, the perfect Storm

Witness her record-breaking haul of 25 medals—19 of those gold—at gymnastics world championships, making her the most successful gymnast, male or female, of all time. Five of those medals, all gold, she won at the World Championships in Stuttgart.

other-sports Updated: Oct 16, 2019 18:44 IST
Rudraneil Sengupta
Rudraneil Sengupta
New Delhi
Simone Biles of the U.S. in action
Simone Biles of the U.S. in action (REUTERS)
         

“If we’re talking about domination, nothing like that has ever happened in our sport.”

That’s Nadia Comaneci, marvelling at the perfect storm that goes by the name of Simone Biles.

“I don’t think there will ever be anything like that.”

“One twist, two, a third! Impossible!” That’s a commentator, watching Biles pull out the Triple Double for the first time.

Simone Biles is not a gymnast; at this point of time, she is gymnastics (Comaneci again).

Witness her record-breaking haul of 25 medals—19 of those gold—at gymnastics world championships, making her the most successful gymnast, male or female, of all time. Five of those medals, all gold, she won at the World Championships in Stuttgart.

Did anyone even notice that the championships in Stuttgart, which ended on Sunday, had both male and female competitions? That the Russian men won their first all-around team gold since the dissolution of the USSR in 1991?

Unlikely. Who had time to take their eyes and minds off Biles, performing skills that, as the commentators repeated to the point of weariness, “no one else is doing at competitions”?

She is the only woman who made all four finals, winning three of them by overwhelming margins. She also won the individual all-around gold, and was part of the USA team that won the team gold.

 

Eyeing the big one

Next year, she will be seeking one of the most elusive medals in the sport—the all-around gold—at the 2020 Tokyo Games, following up from the 2016 Rio Games all-round gold. No one has done that double in more than 50 years, but with Biles, you may as well give it to her now.

Biles is on the cusp of crossing over from being a gymnastics star to a cultural icon, much like Comaneci herself did one fateful evening at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 when she became the first to score a “perfect 10”.

A part of what makes Biles untouchable in competition is the change in scoring method from that “perfect 10” to a double-weighted, infinitesimally calibrated system from 2006.

In this system, the gymnast is scored on two parameters. The first score is based on the difficulty level (D) of the routine the athlete has chosen to perform. The routine is revealed beforehand to the judges, and so this score is predetermined. The next score is based on how well the gymnast executes (E) the routine.

Biles has made it a habit of coming up with routines with exceptionally high D values, and then actually executing it to near-perfection.

The results are breathtaking to watch.

The result is a combined score that puts her a full point or more ahead of her nearest competitor in a sport where the margins are usually in the tenths.

The result is four new skills—one on the vault, one on the beam, two on the floor—named in gymnastics’ hallowed Code of Points after her. Two of those were graded and named (The Biles on the beam, and The Biles II on the floor) at this very world championships.

In the Code of Points, the difficulties are rated from A (the easiest) to J (the hardest). The Biles II is a J, of course. The Biles on the beam—a double flip with a double twist (or a “Double Double”) dismount off the beam—received a H, causing incredulity and disbelief across the gymnastics fraternity. This particular move is so hard that most gymnasts don’t do it on the wide, spring-loaded surface of the floor, let alone off a 4-inch wide beam. How could that not be a J? The gymnastics governing body, FIG, was forced to issue a clarification, saying that it rated it lower to discourage other gymnasts from trying something that it considered a threat to their safety.

How does she do it?

You can talk about her genes—a height-to-muscle mass ratio (at 4 foot 8 she is one of the shortest gymnasts on the circuit, and she is packed with explosive muscles) that makes her naturally gifted for her sport, just like Michael Phelps’ wingspan and flipper-like foot size made him unbeatable in the water. You could talk about the mental strength, the fearlessness in her that makes her go out and perform those incredible aerial acrobatics. You could talk about the hours of work, combined with natural aptitude, combined with a love for the sport that makes her technically near flawless.

Or you could simply watch. Watch that fuse ignite as she accelerates across the floor faster than anyone else in the sport right now. Watch her explode as she launches herself high into orbit, spinning and rotating at a speed that’s an absolute blur. And remember, at that speed, at that height, with those rotations, she is perfectly in control. Her eyes orienting the uncoiling of every move, her head is directing the body. The body, a perfectly compact unit, is following the head. She has such awareness of her own body’s movement and positioning through space that she can make tiny adjustments (like tucking one arm closer to her chest than the other to spin faster in a certain direction)—almost hanging in the air—as she goes through those skills that only she can do, and so, aptly, are named after her.