At the U.S. women’s national championships, Simone Biles cruised to her fourth straight title, proving that winning five gold medals at the Rio Olympics is very much a possibility.
ST. LOUIS — Simone Biles won the all-around title at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in St. Louis on Sunday, followed in the standings by Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian. This was the first step towards Rio for the women—of the 24 women in the competition, 15 advanced to the Olympic Trials in San Jose in two weeks, and there, five of them will be selected to compete at the Olympic Games in August.
Here are some observations from St. Louis:
• This U.S. team is as strong as ever. The U.S. women won the team title at the World Championships in Glasgow last year by more than five points over second-place China and nine more than Great Britain, the surprise bronze medalists. This team will be at least as good as that one, with the potential to have all 12 routines in the Olympic team finals with start values or difficulty scores of 6.0 and higher.
U.S. program director Martha Karolyi—in her last year of this role—says she has the team mapped out in her head, and the 73-year old usually has a very efficient crystal ball. “If we do what we are capable of,” she says, “we should be better than before.”
• Biles is simply in a class by herself. She finished nearly four points ahead of Raisman in St. Louis, effectively branding herself as the all-around favorite on Rio. Says Karolyi, “She is really at another level with her performance. For me, there is no question that there is nobody else like her.”
Rarely has anyone with no Olympic experience been such a strong favorite in any individual sport. But the 19-year old from Spring, Texas already has ten world titles, the most of any female gymnast in history, on her resume and doesn’t seem to have any holes in her game or any fears.
“I don’t see why I should be nervous,” she says. “I’m doing what I love to do in the gym. It’s not a big deal.” No?
If you haven’t seen it yet, Biles’s floor routine shouldn’t be missed:
• Consider this. Martha Karolyi’s husband Bela, who coached Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to Olympic gold, feels that not since Comaneci has there been someone like Biles. “To see the power, the expression, the confidence that she has,” he says, “you know that comes once in many generations. She has what the great ones like Nadia have. She is transcending her time.”
• Biles has positioned herself as a contender for five gold medals in Rio, including the team and all-around competitions. She has already won individual titles on floor and beam and she has added a difficult second vault, a Cheng Fei (round-off, half twist onto the horse, followed by a laid-out back flip with 1 1/2 twists) to her arsenal. She will be one of the few gymnasts eligible for vault finals because she competes two different types of vaults. Only on the uneven bars is she unlikely to challenge for an individual medal.
• Gabby Douglas is back and trying to catch up to Gabby Douglas. The reigning Olympic all-around champ had some form breaks in St. Louis and hasn’t added much to her routines from four years ago. She has also had reason to be distracted, what with the magazine covers, talk shows, a movie and her own reality television series: Douglas Family Gold. Still, Karolyi didn’t sound worried about her fourth-place finish in St. Louis, given Douglas’s history of rallying at the ends of competitions and competitive cycles.
“Gabby seems to have something left at the end,” Karolyi says, “That has been her history, and I expect the same.”
• Give Raisman credit for a comeback most people didn’t expect. There is a large tally of female gymnasts who take a little time away from the sport after an Olympics with full intentions of returning for another go at the Games. Then the weight goes on, the spark goes off, the rest of the world progresses, the new code of points lowers the scores and the effort falls short. One and done. After winning team and floor exercise gold medals in London, Raisman missed two years; she performed on Dancing with the Stars and by her admission had, “packed on some pounds and gotten way out of shape.”
Somehow she found the motivation to return, adding extra conditioning drills, increasing the repetitions of routines in the gym, and going to sleep by 8 p.m. ET each night. She has upgraded one of her tumbling passes and even with relatively weak bars, will probably be the team’s second all-arounder in Rio.
• Laurie Hernandez has never been on such a large world stage, but in her first season at the senior level, the 16-year old now seems to have an Olympic berth in her reach.
“We knew she was a powerful and sturdy performer,” Karolyi says. “We needed to see it with so many people watching.”
Hernandez made up for lost time during her junior career. In 2014, she returned quickly from a fractured hand only to dislocate her kneecap. Last year, she became U.S. junior all-around champion. Not one for sentiment, Karolyi told her not to feel as if she couldn’t replace one of the more seasoned gymnasts ahead of her. Now, the place seems like hers to lose.
• Compiling an Olympic team lineup is always like finishing a jigsaw puzzle. Consider that last puzzle piece to be shaped like the uneven bars—the U.S. team’s weakest event this time around. Teams can pick three gymnasts from their roster of five to compete on each of the four apparatuses in the team competition. If Biles, Raisman, Douglas and Hernandez are on the team, the fifth gymnast will probably have to be able to give the squad a good score on bars. The team will use Biles, probably Douglas, maybe Hernandez and not Raisman on bars, but a specialist on that event could really boost the team score.
That’s the best event for Kocian, the fifth-place finisher, but the team could also opt for Ashton Locklear, who only performed bars and beam in St. Louis, but had the highest combined score on bars. Ragan Smith could be in the mix, should someone falter. MyKayla Skinner, Brenna Dowell, Alyssa Baumann and Maggie Nichols appear to be on the outside looking in.