The greatest gymnast Mary Lou Retton has seen is a wonder.
She has the power to get such height on the vault it seems as if she’s bungee jumping from the roof.
She has the energy to make the final tumbling pass of her boundary-pushing floor exercise – when most of her peers are breathless and counting the seconds until the music stops – as fresh as her first.
She has the poise to flip and swoop and turn on a 4-inch wide slab of wood 4-feet off the ground so fluidly it’s like an X Games version of ballet.
“The god-gifted ability of explosiveness and just her athleticism, you can’t teach that,” said Retton, the 1984 Olympic champion. “You cannot teach that. You can teach somebody to be a little bit more graceful. You can teach someone more skills, but you can’t teach that special unique quality that Simone has.”
Get ready to know Simone Biles. In her sport, the live-wire 19-year-old from Spring, Texas, enjoys first-name only status, the byproduct of a three-year run of dominance that includes 14 world championship medals with a record 10 golds and three all-around titles.
“We’re joking she should have to compete with the guys,” Retton said. “She’s so good. She pushes it. She’s just special.”
If still somewhat anonymous outside of the buzzing fans who inhabit the social-media driven gymternet. For all of the awe Biles inspires, the one thing – really the only thing – Biles lacks is that Olympic moment of triumph with the world – the whole world, not just part of it – watching.
“It’s that Olympic all-around gold medal, the Queen Bee, the most important,” Retton said. “Yeah, I think she needs it as part of her repertoire.”
There is no denying Biles’ excellence. She could never turn another backflip and her spot in her sport’s pantheon would be secure. Yet to the general public, she remains somewhat unknown. It took her two world titles before Twitter would verify her. Her followers – currently in the 82,000 range – total just 10 percent of those who follow 2012 Olympic champion (and 2016 teammate) Gabby Douglas.
“It’s like you still need that one puzzle piece,” said 2004 Olympic champion Carly Patterson. “It’s just crazy. You really need to have that checkmark to be looked at as one of those tops. That’s what it seems like. Her career is incredible and you wonder if that creates so much pressure.”
Such is the fine line Biles, her family and longtime coach Aimee Boorman have been trying to walk in the run-up to Rio. While they have taken steps to maximize the potential a golden moment in Rio would provide – Biles turned professional last spring – they have also been careful in creating internal expectations focused more on the process than the end result.
“She could quit tomorrow and still be a world champion,” said Boorman, who coaches at the aptly named World Champions Centre, the state-of-the art training center/passion project the Biles family opened in suburban Houston last fall. “We tell her that is people want to put pressure on her to win the Olympics, that’s their pressure, not hers.”
For Biles, it’s not about her scores. Biles doesn’t pay much attention to them. It’s not about winning, maybe because every meet she has entered since the 2013 U.S. championships has ended the same way: with Biles atop the podium ducking her head so the latest medal to her ever-growing collection can be draped around her neck.
It’s not even about her highly GIF-able routines either, the ones that leave her peers in awe. If Biles is being honest, she doesn’t even know the formal terms for some of the skills she does anyway.
“They’re like, ‘Oh, you did a …’ and I’m like, ‘I did a what?’ ” Biles said. “No, I flipped twice. I twisted twice. They go, ‘It’s called a …’ and I’m like, ‘Why do I need to know that? I just need to go and do that.’ ”
While Biles is happy to talk about shopping, favorites pictures of junk food on Instagram and kidnapping Steph Curry’s kids so she can babysit them (as she did on Monday after securing a spot on the five-woman team while easily winning the Olympic trials), she’s not interested in fangirling over herself.
“It hurts my head, but it’s fine because it’s something I do every day,” Biles said. “You can’t avoid the gymnastics questions.”
Particularly the most basic one. How?
“We all have skills, I guess,” she said.
Maybe, but Biles somehow seems to have all of them.
The sport’s code of points – overhauled more than a decade ago to get rid of the 10-point system in favor of one designed to great a higher risk/reward factor – forces its competitors to make a choice between aggression and precision. Biles is the rare gymnast who doesn’t have to choose. She can do both.
“If you made it look as easy as Simone, you’d be smiling, too,” said former Olympic Bela Karolyi, whose wife Martha has turned the U.S. national team into the Harlem Globetrotters in leotards and ceiling-scraping hair buns. “There is no one to compare Simone to.”
On the final night of Olympic trials Sunday night Biles drilled her intricate Amanar vault and earned a 16.2, the highest of the meet on any event. The score included a 9.9 mark for execution, as close to perfection as the judges let things get these days. Her two-day total on vault of 32.200 was 1.3 points clear of runner-up MyKayla Skinner, the equivalent of a three-touchdown win in football.
There’s so much cushion between Biles and the rest of the world that even a fall or two like the one on beam Sunday night that briefly set her eyes ablaze – a miscue that would jeopardize the medal hopes of most – is basically no big deal. Not that it mattered to Biles. She’s spent the last three years setting a standard that is uniquely hers, which may be her most remarkable talent of all.
“Typically you can have an athlete that’s head and tails above the rest, they might rest on their laurels a little bit,” said seven-time Olympic medalist Shannon Miller, a member of the 1996 U.S. team that won the country’s first team Olympic gold. “They might slide a little bit. She doesn’t. She’s at the top of her game every time.”
The ultimate stage awaits.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.