Fearless Imagination Makes Simone Biles the Best Gymnast Ever

Greg CouchNational ColumnistAugust 12, 2016

Simone Biles won the individual all-around gold on Thursday.
Simone Biles won the individual all-around gold on Thursday.Associated Press

Let's start by getting the debate out of the way: Simone Biles won the individual all-around Olympic gold medal Thursday and is the best gymnast in the world. Everybody already knew that, but now it's official. And now, she'll spend the rest of the Rio Games collecting more golds in the individual event finals while the debate will start about whether she's the best ever.

Put it this way: She is.

End of debate.

The question is what that really means. She isn't a swimmer, where the idea is to do what everyone else has done, only faster. Or a runner, who is the best ever because she cut .01 off the 100-meter dash. Biles isn't just doing what Mary Lou Retton, Nadia Comaneci, Nastia Liukin or even Gabby Douglas did.

She is doing things they couldn't do. She's also doing things they never even thought of doing.

Biles' greatness is part skill, part work ethic, part heart, part coaching. But come on: A lot of people have those things. True greatness, true evolution and revolution in a sport like this requires the imagination to do it. Biles' greatness starts at the point where she can see her body doing things that no one has done before.

"It's nerve-wracking," she told me this spring. "Like, even though I've done my vault a thousand times, whenever you do something new, you get a little bit nervous. You get a little bit ahead of yourself, like, 'What if something goes wrong?'

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"But you have to be confident, too, because if you train well, you should be OK. Sometimes, it just comes down to being a crazy day sometimes."

There is a move on the floor exercise that is now called the Biles. Without getting too technical—because I can't—the move is this: On a pass from one corner of the mat to the other, she launches into a double back-layout—flipping in midair twice, with her body straight—and then throws in something others don't do: a half-twist.

On her dismount on the beam she does a double backflip and has, in practice, done two full twists. She said that during her bars routine, she is toying with a move that gets her into a handstand—as others do—and then doing a full pirouette instead of a half. She called it a Weiler full instead of a Weiler half.

"Nobody has done that," she said. "Sometimes I do it accidentally."

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 11: (EDITORS NOTE: Multiple exposures were combined in
camera to produce this image.) Simone Biles of the United States competes on the balance beam during the Women's Individual All Around Final on Day 6 of the 2016 Rio Ol
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

If she does it in a competition, they will name it after her. How much of this sport is going to be named after Biles?

Look, gymnastics is a grind. It is brutal, and Biles, pound-for-pound, is probably the toughest athlete in the world. These girls and young women, under the regimen of U.S. team leader Martha Karolyi, are training 32 hours a week. You can debate whether that is too much work for a kid's body, or whether all that pounding is wreaking havoc on children's growth plates. Biles is 4'8" of large, solid muscle.

But whatever the dangers, gymnastics itself leaves a girl thinking her body will do whatever she darn well tells it to. That's power.

And doing things no one has done before means having that confidence. When you're doing flips on a four-inch wide beam, you are risking serious injury.

"Some days my coach will say, 'Hey, do this. And I'm like uh-uh [no],'" Biles said. "But there are days I decide I'm feeling it today. It just depends how you're feeling. When I was younger, I was a little more fearless."

She's 19 now. But she might have touched on something there. The Karolyis, Bela and Martha, have built the U.S. into a women's gymnastics dynasty. The truth is that not one gymnast on any other team in these Olympics would have been good enough to make the U.S. team.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 11:  Simone Biles of the United States competes on the floor during the Women's Individual All Around Final on Day 6 of the 2016 Rio Olympics at Rio Olympic Arena on August 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Pas
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Martha brought Biles in and worked to help her find some fearlessness and a little more flexibility. Whatever you think of the Karolyi method, it helped Biles to find what was inside of her. That's what the best coaches do. And it's why the U.S. now basically owns the women's all-around.

The U.S. has now won Olympic gold in the individual all-around in four straight Olympics.

But it's a different young woman doing it each time, from Carly Patterson to Liukin to Douglas and now to Biles. It was clear that Douglas, competing in Rio, has dropped off some from four years ago in London. There could be all sorts of reasons for that, including a letdown after reaching the very top of the sport, reaching all your goals.

Martha Karolyi with Biles
Martha Karolyi with BilesJulio Cortez/Associated Press/Associated Press

But also, it's harder to keep your fearlessness when you start getting a little older. You have something to lose.

Biles told Bleacher Report that on one move, she showed it to Martha and said she wanted to do it. Karolyi said she didn't think it was a good idea.

"But I landed it so many times," Biles said, "she couldn't say no."

Gymnastics keeps building on itself. One champion imagines something and does it, and then the rest follow. And then someone imagines something else.

They keep getting better. So maybe the best ever is the one who imagined best, the one who dominated her own era most. Biles has won three straight world championships and now, in Rio, a team and individual all-around gold. Aly Raisman, who won the silver medal in the all-around, said going in that she knew Biles would win gold. Raisman's goal was to win silver.

The next generation will see now from Biles what kinds of things can be done. They'll spend years trying to catch her and then imagine something else. But Biles said she isn't ready to stop dreaming:

"There's a lot more moves to try."


Greg Couch covers the Olympics for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @gregcouch.