It’s difficult to summon the right adjectives to explain how American gymnast Simone Biles completely crushes all the competition in the whole world. Luckily, the internet was invented, and so I can use GIFs instead. Biles is competing at the World Championships in Glasgow this week, and you really have to watch her, because you’re going to want to know who she is before the Olympics in Rio next year, where she will break the internet with her talent.
Biles helped the U.S. win the team gold medal on Wednesday. She competes in the all-around final Friday at 8 p.m. on Universal Sports, and in event finals Saturday and Sunday night. In prelims, Biles outscored 2012 Olympic champion Gabby Douglas by more four points in the all-around, getting a 61.598 to Douglas's 57.516. It means Biles would have to have fallen four times for Douglas to pass her. (For comparison, at the 2012 Olympics, Douglas beat Russian Viktoria Komova by 0.259 points to win the gold.) That Biles would crush Douglas was expected. She not only got the highest score in the all-around, but also in vault, beam, and floor. Since she began competing at the senior level in 2013, Biles is unbeaten in international competition. In the gymnastics world, her biggest obstacle to Rio is thought to be the possibility that all the well-deserved praise and hype will get to her head. She is 18.
To appreciate Bile's historic performance, where she's going for three all-around golds in a row at the World Championships, you must go in as an educated gymnastics viewer. And so let me show you some GIFs to enrich your brain.
Biles's best event is floor. It's not always her highest score, but it's her highest score relative to everyone else. She qualified into finals with a 15.966, more than a point ahead of her closest competitor, Sae Miyakawa of Japan. The perfect 10 is gone. To make gymnastics a bit more objective, and to encourage harder and harder tricks, there are two parts to a gymnast's total score: the D-score and the E-score. The D-score measures the combined difficulty of every skill in a routine: three twists are worth more than two. (Biles has the highest D-score in the floor final.) The E-score is for execution—how well each skill was performed. But it’s better to think of the “E” as standing for “ease.” The easier it is for a gymnast to do a skill, the easier it is for her to make it look pretty—straight legs, pointed toes, the whole ballet look, while flipping high in the air. (Biles also has the highest E-score in the floor final.)
So basically, Biles makes the hardest skills look easy, while other gymnasts look like they're struggling to survive. Where other girls land hunched over, she lands straight up. Where other girls bend their knees, hers are straight. So compare the GIF of Biles doing a full-twisting double back layout (above) with Italy's Erika Fasana doing the same thing (at right). Biles's body is perfectly straight, Fasana's is bent at the hips. Biles looks like she's casually falling out of the sky as she lands, Fasana is struggling to pull the last flip around so she doesn't land on her knees.
Biles has been compared to Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Tom Brady. “I guess I would say if you combined all the best athletes you’ve ever known and… put them all combined into one teenager… and then you put them in the world championships of their sport as one person, that’s how good she is,” says Jessica O’Beirne, who runs the GymCastic podcast. (GymCastic is a weekly gymnastics podcast, but is podcasting every day of the women’s competition. Listen to it! It’s a vital corrective to clueless-dad-style TV commentators. Imagine if Super Bowl announcers said things like, “Now the ball, it is a very weird shape, right? So it is very hard to throw?”) O'Beirne points to this skill as an example of Biles's incredible talent:
It's a double-twisting double back, and it's super hard, and Biles makes it look beautiful—at the very end of her routine. For most gymnasts, this would be the hardest tumbling run, and they'd throw it first, before they started getting out of breath. But Biles does it third. Here's Gabby Douglas—who'll be competing in all-around finals too, and has a strong shot at silver or bronze—doing the same thing, but with one less twist. (Two back flips, one twist.) See how her legs come apart? It just doesn't look as easy and neat:
Biles gets so high you can literally see a judge gasping in this Getty photo:
"If you can’t tell on TV, when you’re in the arena, and there are people who have never seen gymnastics, when Simone goes, their mouths drop open, and you just hear 'ooooh' every [tumbling pass] she does," O'Beirne says. "She is a person that makes your mouth drop open. And already people feel like that about gymnastics. And now you have someone doing it above and beyond that. ... She’s like an astronaut. She’s like the first person in space. There’s just never been, I mean, I just can’t think of anyone."
Or take this skill, called a barani—a front flip with a half twist—on beam. It's really hard because the beam has almost no bounce, and the twist can easily pull a gymnast's body out of line and therefore off the beam. Biles seems to easily jump into it with the smallest push off her toes.
American gymnast Chellsie Memmel competed this skill too. A GIF of Memmel's attempt gives you a better sense of how hard it is. Memmel is doing it in the piked position, which is harder, but you can see the struggle.
"I don’t think she has a lot of fear," O'Beirne says. "She did try standing double-back..." (That means standing still—no running to get momentum. See GIF at right.) "And she made it too. It was scary, but she made it. I don’t think she has a lot of fear because she has that knowledge of her body. She knows what she’s capable of, and what she isn’t." That includes apparently endless bouncey flippability, which cannot be slowed by overlong yoga pants:
Biles has a special relationship with her coach, Aimee Boorman, who does not have the Soviet-lite strictness of many gymnastics coaches. Biles gets breaks and vacations; she's not forced to train hard when events outside the gym take emotional precedence, O'Beirne says. Biles decides how difficult her routines will be. It's a contrast to the national program, which O'Beirne says could learn from Boorman. O'Beirne explains that before a huge competition like this, the national team is sequestered at a ranch in Texas for 20 days, training every day without a break. When they travel to events like the World Championships, the gymnasts "are sequestered and set apart. ... They are not allowed to interact, not allowed to go sight-seeing, they’re not allowed to do anything, they are literally locked—I mean, not literally locked—but they can’t leave their hotel rooms. And I think that that is to the detriment of the whole team."
They need a break from the pressure. And Biles said so, after the American team had a rough prelims with several falls. "We've just been going for so long, and I think we need a little bit of a mental break," she said. "That's where a lot of our mistakes came into play." O'Beirne says such seemingly mild criticism of national team training is a very big deal. "It takes great courage. It may not seem to the average viewer that that was a statement heard around the world. But it was." It's one more way that Biles is very brave.