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Olympics preview: U.S., Simone Biles projected favorites in women’s gymnastics

The United States’s Simone Biles is aiming to become the first woman to win as many as five gymnastics gold medals out of six at one Olympics

Can anyone or anything stop Simone Biles? In a sport with such a rapid rate of turnover as women’s gymnastics, it’s rare for someone to enter an Olympics as such a heavy favorite in an all-around competition as Biles. She has three world all-around titles since she became a senior after the London Olympics and is being challenged by her own standards and expectations more than by anyone else in the field. Simply put, if she hits in Rio, it will be a fight for silver and bronze.

Can she live up to it? So far, the only time Biles has been rattled by anything at major world competitions, she was standing on the first-place podium after the all-around competition waiting for her national anthem at the 2014 worlds in Nanning, China. After receiving her medal and flowers, she was spooked by a bee that jumped out of the flowers and chased her off the podium. Biles doesn’t crack nearly as easily on the completion floor. She was in such easy control that in the middle of a floor routine at the U.S. Nationals in St. Louis in June, Biles took a moment in the middle of the routine to wink at 2008 Olympian Shawn Johnson, who was sitting along press row.


Can she leap, flip and twist into history by becoming the first woman to win as many as five gymnastics gold medals out of six at one Olympics? Assuming a gold for a dominant U.S. squad in the team competition and the all-around final two days later, Biles would need to win one on each of the three days of individual event finals. She isn’t expected to get one on the uneven bars, where teammate Madison Kocian, an event specialist, will be among the favorites, but on vault, beam and floor, Biles will come to Rio with routines that are as polished as any.

As with many other gymnasts, Biles sports an Amanar vault—round-off, back 2 1/2—that she will use in the team and individual all-around competitions. But only gymnasts who choose to perform an additional vault from different family of recognized vaults can compete for individual medals. Biles has added a dizzying vault named for China’s Cheng Fei—a round-off, half twist onto the horse, back layout 1 1/2 off—to her arsenal. Should she land both, she will have the jump on everyone.

On beam, she moves with easy security through a routine that has a higher difficulty level than anyone else in the world, ending with a tucked full-in dismount from two flip flops.

She soars through her tumbling runs on floor (full-twisting double layout mount; The Biles, a double layout, half-out; tucked double-double; tucked full-in).

That’s a lot for one gymnast to get right at one competition. But Biles is so far ahead of the competition, the question is how far will she soar in Rio?

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Athletes to watch

Aly Raisman, U.S.

When the team captain first said she intended to return to the national team and make a run at another Olympics two years ago, it seemed like a fantasy. Raisman had been on the TV show Dancing with the Stars, but she still put on the freshman 15 without going to college. Instead she went back into training with coach Mihai Brestyan and undertook a rigorous conditioning program just to get her ready to get back on the equipment. Her monastic dedication has led teammates to call her “grandma.” As defending Olympic champ on floor, she’ll contend for that title again and will be a strong, steadying influence for a U.S. team that should be atop the podium again.

Gabby Douglas, U.S.

The reigning Olympic all-around champion almost didn’t make the team after a sub-par showing at nationals and an iffy start to trials, but Douglas can still put together a good bars set and do a vault if needed. She hasn’t improved her routines much from 2012, so don’t expect her in the all-around finals again. But Douglas has a history of rallying with good performances late at competitions and in training cycles. She is well-liked by judges and if she’s right, she’ll certainly be an asset for the U.S. squad.

Laurie Hernandez, U.S.

The New Jersey high schooler emerged from the junior ranks this year and not only cemented her place on the Olympic team, but also as the gymnast who could well be the U.S. team’s second all-arounder after Biles. She has a sassy floor routine that energizes the crowd and should play well in Rio. Her difficulty levels aren’t high enough to fight for the top spot, unless Biles and others falter, but she was remarkably consistent and unfazed by the competitions on the podium at nationals and trials. Look for the U.S. team to use her on everything but bars in the team competition.

Angelina Melnikova, Russia

The 16-year old from Voronezh has been working her way through the ranks of the Russian elites now for the past three years, and while 21-year-old veterans Aliya Mustafina and Maria Paseka will lead the Russian squad, Melnikova, who won the national all-around crown in Penza in April, is ready to emerge as the team’s best gymnast. If not for a weak spot on vault, she could contend for an all-around crown and may still get on the podium.

Catalina Ponor, Romania

For years it has been a given that certain teams would be among the elite in certain Olympic sports, from the Cubans in boxing to the Australians in swimming to the Romanians in women’s gymnastics. It was a shock when Romania qualified only a single individual gymnast rather than a full team for the Rio Games this year. Then came the drama over the selection. Larisa Iordache was the presumed choice, having won all-around medals at the last two world championships (silver in 2014, bronze in 2015) and the all-around crown at the Romanian national championships this year. Then without consulting the Romanian Gymnastics Federation, the Romanian Olympic Committee announced that Ponor, a veteran of two previous Olympics, would be the delegation’s flag bearer at the opening ceremonies, leaving the federation to nominate Ponor instead of Iordache or be in conflict with the committee that oversees it. At 28, Ponor is years removed from her best Olympics in 2004 when she won beam and floor at the Athens Games. How will she do as once powerful Romania’s lone representative?

Gold medal dates:

Tue. Aug. 9 — Team

Thu. Aug. 11 — All-Around

Sun. Aug. 14 — Apparatus (vault, uneven bars)

Mon. Aug. 15 — Apparatus (balance beam)

Tue. Aug 16 — Apparatus (floor exercise)