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Simone Biles Dominates at the Gymnastics World Championships, Even When She Falls

Fans of gymnastics love to speculate that Simone Biles, the reigning Olympic all-around champion and by all accounts the best gymnast in the world, could outdo her competition even if her scores suffered from not just one fall—the sport’s greatest error—but several. On Thursday, attempting to secure another world all-around title at this year’s championships in Doha, Qatar, Biles ended up putting this hypothesis to the test. In the meet’s first round, she fell backward after under-rotating a vault that bears her name because, until qualifications, no other woman had ever completed it in international competition. Later, on the beam, Biles failed to land a Barani somersault and barely saved her notorious front pike. (A similar skill had thwarted her during the beam final in Rio two years ago, when she grabbed the apparatus after a shaky front tuck.) Though Biles succeeded on the uneven bars, historically her least favorite event, she landed out of bounds during her floor routine’s stratospheric first tumbling pass, completing her roughest meet since 2013.

Yet sure enough, in Doha, Biles managed to emerge on top, with a record-breaking margin of victory—1.693 points, larger than the gap between second and twelfth place. “Didn’t mean to give everyone a heart attack,” she tweeted, not long after the results were announced on Thursday, making her the first female gymnast in history to win four world all-around gold medals. The unmatched level of difficulty in Biles’s routines could have probably afforded her one more fall. But her most shocking achievement might have been winning despite having spent the night before qualifiers in an emergency room in Qatar, suffering from a kidney stone. (She has since dubbed it the “Doha pearl.”)

This week’s competition has become a showcase not only for Biles’s eminence but for that of the U.S. women at large. On Tuesday, they defeated Russia and China to seize team gold by a similarly astonishing margin. Biles was joined by Morgan Hurd, the world all-around champion from 2017 and this year’s bronze medallist, who somehow keeps her eyeglasses on even while flying through a Shaposhnikova or sticking a double-twisting Yurchenko. The other team members, less experienced but equally impressive, are newcomers to the international floor. There’s Riley McCusker, a fluid bars specialist whose form recalls the legend Nastia Liukin’s, and Kara Eaker, one of the most graceful beam workers in recent memory. Grace McCallum, who turned sixteen on the day of the team competition, buoyed the group’s scores on vault and floor.

The team’s decisive success offers some consolation to those who have worried that the chaos that has engulfed American gymnastics this past year would ruin its athletes’ chances. Since the 2017 world championships, in Montreal, the sport’s national governing body has reckoned with a harrowing series of scandals. In January, a former doctor for the women’s national team, Larry Nassar, was sentenced to decades in prison after more than a hundred female athletes, among them the two-time Olympian Aly Raisman, came forward with accusations of sexual abuse. The revelations about Nassar have continued to prompt wide upheavals in the worlds of sports and higher education. Steve Penny, the former president and chief executive of U.S.A. Gymnastics, was arrested last month following allegations that he had ordered the removal of documents from a training center in Texas after discovering an investigation into Nassar’s behavior there. (Like many of the sport’s national officials, Penny, who has denied the allegations, had resigned earlier in the year, after legions of women spoke out at one of Nassar’s sentencing hearings.) His replacement, Kerry Perry, was also forced to resign by the United States Olympic Committee, in September, amid criticism that she had mishandled the scandal. Mary Bono, the interim president and chief executive who was appointed in October, stepped down from the embattled federation after public complaints about her opposition to Nike’s support for Colin Kaepernick and her connection to the law firm that advised U.S.A. Gymnastics as it delayed revealing what it knew about Nassar’s abuse. (According to USA Today, Bono was not affiliated with the office of the firm that worked with U.S.A. Gymnastics.)

It is both a shame and an inspiration that élite athletes from one of the country’s most successful Olympic sports have expended so much energy advocating for their program’s reform. Biles’s stature in the sport has, like Raisman’s, allowed her immense influence to agitate for change. In the past, she has used her platform to criticize many of the American federation’s unpopular decisions, including its string of unsuccessful executive hires. (In October, it was Biles’s tweet that directed public scrutiny to Bono’s comments about Kaepernick.) After going public with her own story of abuse, last January, Biles contributed to the uproar that forced U.S.A. Gymnastics to sever ties with the Karolyi Ranch, a high-pressure bootcamp where national athletes no longer train. Raisman, who has expressed interest in competing in a third Olympics, has yet to return to training. She has focussed instead on demanding from national officials the leadership and transparency that the next generation of athletes deserves. “There still has not been a full independent investigation by law enforcement, and that is just absolutely absurd,” she told the “Today” show, on Tuesday, as the women’s team competed in Doha. “I’m so impressed with them, and so proud of them,” she said, adding, “I can’t even imagine how hard it is for them to represent an organization that just keeps making these same mistakes.”

The competition abroad has highlighted the extent to which such strength and solidarity define female gymnasts across the world. Oksana Chusovitina, the Uzbek competitor who had appeared in multiple world championships before most of her opponents were born, barely missed the podium in Friday’s vault final. Aliya Mustafina, the Russian powerhouse who has won two consecutive Olympic gold medals on the uneven bars, qualified for the event final at worlds just over a year after giving birth to a daughter. (“She’s like my queen,” Morgan Hurd told an interviewer earlier this week, after finally meeting the champion.) Biles, the only athlete on the U.S. team to have come forward with a story of abuse, is similarly hardy, having returned to competition just last summer.

Most recently, Biles set a new record, winning more gold world medals than any gymnast in history. She took first place in Friday’s vault final and second on the uneven bars, the only event in which she had never before medalled. (On Saturday, she is expected to win gold on the beam and floor.) But her greatest asset may be an unbelievable willingness to keep challenging both herself and her sport. The vault that caused her fall involves a roundoff entry with a half twist onto the table, followed by a laid-out somersault with two additional twists. In qualifications, she had performed the move successfully, achieving near-inhuman amplitude and landing, in a violet leotard, to mass applause. On Thursday evening, as I rewatched the slow-motion clips of this moment—they have inundated the Internet—her rare fall during the all-around came to seem like a mere testament to her daring. At her best—and at the sport’s best, one imagines—Biles might well have fit in another half twist.



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