By Karen Braun
(Reuters) – Already considered one of the greatest female gymnasts of all time, Simone Biles entered the pantheon of champions at the Rio Olympic Games. Her four gold-medal performance there had seemed to leave little room for improvement, as she racked up scores that few, if any, could match.
But at this year’s world championships in Stuttgart, the American is not only doing skills that no other woman can, she is performing moves that once seemed impossible for even Biles herself.
Biles became the most decorated female athlete in the history of the world championships, having secured a total of 21 medals following her team’s first-place finish on Tuesday, eclipsing the record set by Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina.
She tumbled her way to a 22nd medal on Thursday, earning an unprecedented fifth world title in the all-around competition. That put her one medal away from the all-time record holder, Belarusian Vitaly Scherbo.
But apart from the hardware, pushing herself to new limits is what Biles is all about, especially when it comes to difficulty.
The 22-year-old successfully landed her triple-twisting double backflip on floor exercise and her double-twisting double backflip balance beam dismount in the qualification round on Saturday, ensuring those skills would be named after her in the Code of Points.
That did not come without controversy, though, as the International Gymnastics Federation assigned the double-double beam dismount a lower-than-expected difficulty rating, sparking outrage from both Biles and USA Gymnastics.
Biles’s execution of her now-eponymous moves is not controversial at all, however, as she performs them nearly flawlessly, leaving both the audience and her opponents in awe.
But just how difficult is the triple-double?
Women have been performing double backflips on floor since the early 1970s. Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina added a full twist to one of those flips in 1978.
In 1988, Romanian great Daniela Silivas added a second twist, and the double-double is still among the most difficult tumbling passes done by female gymnasts today.
It would be 31 long years before a third twist was added, something that barely seemed feasible, even for Biles. But her coach apparently had a little more faith.
“He has all these crazy ideas,” Biles said of coach Laurent Landi, speaking to NBC last week. “Then he has to kind of push me toward it until I’m ready to do it myself. And then I’m like, `OK, it’s not that bad’.”
The triple-double in men’s gymnastics is named after Ri Jong Song of North Korea, a skill he first performed at the 2004 Olympics. Still, very few men actually compete this move.
Difficulty in women’s floor exercise has increased since 1988, though. At the 2013 worlds, Canadian Victoria Moors debuted the double-twisting double backflip in the stretched position. At the same competition, Biles performed a double backflip in the stretched position with a half turn at the end.
So the triple-double is actually the Biles II because Simone had already invented a new floor skill six years earlier.
Aside from her two floor moves and beam dismount, Biles also has an extremely difficult eponymous vault, which she first competed at last year’s world championships in Doha, Qatar.
But simply doing the skills is not quite enough for the perfectionist, who is disappointed when she makes a rare stumble. Biles came away from Doha with six medals, the maximum available to the women.
That included her fourth world all-around title, but she had fallen twice during the meet and was upset.
“You have to earn it,” she said after the competition. “And I’m not so sure that I earned it tonight. It was so bad.”
Biles may be her toughest critic, but spectators simply cannot get enough. They are best advised to soak in as much Simone as possible between now and the Tokyo Olympics, as she has said they will be her last.
(Reporting by Ed Osmond)