It’s not the typical road map to gymnastics greatness.
In past years, it’s taken memorable Olympic performances to make all-time American heroes out of athletes like Shawn Johnson, Shannon Miller, Nastia Liukin and Mary Lou Retton.
But in the case of superstar Simone Biles, who’ll be making her Summer Games debut as a 19-year-old, next month’s trip to Rio has essentially been reduced to a victory lap.
“Just when we thought we were at the physical limit of the sport, then here comes Simone Biles,” Retton said during a Parade of Olympians event held alongside the U.S. Olympic Trials in San Jose, California, on Saturday.
“She's the best I've ever seen.”
And Retton, if anyone, ought to know:
She became the first American to win an all-around Olympic gold at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, but, unlike Biles, didn’t become a household name until after she ascended the medals stand.
In Biles’ case, though, getting gold around her neck in Brazil will only confirm the obvious.
“When she shows up in Rio, she'll have those titles,” Retton said.
“She has a special, unique quality no one else has.”
Had she been born a bit earlier, the confirmation might have happened years ago.
The 4'9" spark plug debuted on the international stage seven months after Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross and Jordyn Wieber formed the “Fierce Five” that won top team honors at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
A 16-year-old Biles captured all-around and floor exercise golds at the 2013 world championships in Antwerp, Belgium, and she’s since assembled a collection of hardware that includes 14 world medals (10 golds) and 17 more medals (11 golds) at U.S. championship events as the trials began Friday.
Clearly, though, there’s room in the trophy case for another shelf.
“No matter how many world championships you might win,” Liukin said, “she’ll want Olympic gold medals to complete things.”
Indeed, even though a showing in San Jose took all suspense from an imminent trip to South America, the Ohio native—who was adopted at age two by her maternal grandfather and his wife—appeared just as giddy as the four teammates (Douglas, Raisman, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian) who’ll join her.
“It definitely fits at the top [of my achievements] because it’s been a goal for a couple of years now,” Biles told NBC’s Andrea Joyce. “It’s so unreal. I am an emotional person. I tried to hide it, but it’s a very good emotional night. Call us the Fierce Five, second generation.”
She’ll presumably focus on the vault, balance beam and floor exercise events at the Games in Rio, after winning all three—plus the all-around title—at the U.S. championship meet earlier this month in St. Louis. She’s the reigning two-time world champion in the all-around, beam and floor exercise and won silver and bronze in the vault at worlds in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
“When the coaches talk to us, they say don’t even count Simone, she’s in a different league,” Raisman told Linda Robertson of the Miami Herald. “There’s so much pressure, I don’t even know how she does it. Her level of difficulty is so high, but she’s able to control it. She just does not fall. She’s so consistent.”
If you’re looking for any indication of vulnerability in Brazil—especially after a surprising stumble on the beam during Sunday night’s trials performance—don’t hold your breath.
“She could do the same routine and still win Olympic all-around gold,” NBC’s Tim Daggett said.
Biles scored a pedestrian 14.75 on the beam but racked up a 14.90 on the uneven bars, a 15.55 on the floor exercise and a 16.20 on the vault that was one-tenth of a point from perfection.
Her vault a day earlier in practice, Daggett said, was the “most perfect piece of gymnastics” he’s seen.
“She’s the most dominant female athlete in the world,” he said.
“She’s just that much better than everyone else.”
Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes were taken from Sunday's NBC broadcast of the gymnastics trials.