SAN JOSE, Calif. — She knows she is constantly described as the rare sure thing in a sport that doesn’t usually allow sure things. But after her last workout before the U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics trials begin Friday, Simone Biles wasn’t willing to let anyone tell her she’s a lock to win this two-day meet or to get to the Rio Summer Olympics. It doesn’t matter to her that she has won three consecutive world all-around titles, or just beat her nearest American rival by 3.9 points at the U.S. national championships two weeks ago.
Biles instead smiled Thursday and told a story about a recent dream she had about finally arriving at this, her first Olympic trials.
“I cried before the start of every single event,” Biles said with a laugh. “That was my dream. Hopefully that doesn’t really happen to me tomorrow.”
It almost certainly won’t.
But Biles knows it can’t.
Biles is only 19, but she is fully aware that as preposterously great as all her last three years have been, the Olympics are the only place where she can truly cement her place in history and in the public imagination.
If Biles does not go on to dominate as expected and win gold medals next month in Rio — as many as five golds are possible for her — it won’t matter that she is already closing in on passing three-time Olympian Svetlana Khorkina as the most decorated female gymnast ever, or that longtime gymnastics observers say Biles has already eclipsed two-time Olympian Nadia Comenci in the discussion about the greatest female gymnast of all time.
Comenci was the sport’s standard of perfection — until the 4-foot-9 Biles came along displaying more power and degree of difficulty than Comenci did at the 1976 and ’80 Games.
“I do think of history and [gymnasts who came before] because they all paved the way for us,” Biles said, sitting in a director’s chair setup at a team press conference after Thursday’s workout. “If it hadn’t been for them, we wouldn’t be here doing such strong gymnastics. We’re just trying to carry the legacy on.”
Biles, with the exception of the rare anxiety dream, seems to have found a few ways to chop the pressure bearing down on her right now into manageable pieces.
When asked again and again Thursday about being a prohibitive favorite here, Biles shrugged and said, “It’s just labels. What does it do for me if I walk around here saying, ‘I’m the favorite?'”
Told that her journey toward Olympic fame is a “Hollywood story” — she’s risen to greatness after being adopted at age 5 by her paternal grandparents because her estranged mom struggled with drugs and alcohol use — Biles amiably pushed back a little again and said, “Well, they [outsiders] turn it that way, but I honestly thought everyone was adopted until I spoke up. People would say to me, ‘You’re adopted?,’ and I would say, ‘Aren’t you?'”
Biles smiled. And everyone laughed.
America has the best women’s gymnastics team in the world and yet Biles could probably fall twice in the four events — balance beam, floor, vault and uneven bars — and still win these trials.
The difficulty and amplitude she packs into her routines is that much higher than anyone else’s. Anywhere.
Even for a gymnast, she has freakish strength and an amazing ability to pick up new skills. Aimee Boorman, Biles’ Houston-based coach since Biles was in elementary school, often says Biles has the uncanny ability to know exactly where she is in mid-air even when practicing tricks that other gymnasts are afraid to try because they literally fear gravely injuring themselves. Plenty of heart-to-hearts with Boorman over the years, along with seeing a sports psychologist beginning in 2013, has also helped convince Biles that she doesn’t need to listen to conventional thinking or other people’s expectations for her once at a competition.
“Other people do enough thinking for me,” she said Thursday with a smile.
“Gymnasts are all better when they don’t think and just do what they’ve trained to do,” national team coordinator Martha Karolyi agreed with a laugh.
And so Biles bounces along, doing things her way. She had a lot of fun throwing out the first pitch at a Houston Astros game on Tuesday by doing a handspring off the mound and then coming up throwing. Team veteran Aly Raisman said here Thursday that she had to move her room at the U.S. team’s training center away from Biles and Gabby Douglas’ room because Biles and Douglas were often laughing so loudly Raisman couldn’t sleep. “And I can fall asleep sitting right here if I just shut my eyes,” Raisman laughed.
These Olympic trials are expected to be yet another coronation for Biles. She is expected to be the breakout American star of the Rio Games along with Katie Ledecky, U.S. swimming’s female successor to Michael Phelps. Again, it’s not something Biles is eager to linger on.
“But what can you do?” she sighs. “If I walk around here saying I’m the favorite, how does that help me? Nothing is set in stone until it’s set in stone.”
Biles did concede once Thursday that she does perform better when, say, she goes out before a “mind” event, like the four-inch-wide balance beam, and tells herself “I’m the bomb” before she begins, rather than dwell on what might go wrong.
“We’re all a little nervous and jittery right now [about making the Rio team],” Biles said, “so we all try not to talk about it because it’s such a touchy subject.
“We just try to live in the moment.”
At the moment, Biles is the best gymnast in the world. She might just be the strongest willed gymnast, too. She actually has convinced herself that she’s not a Sure Thing at these Olympic trials or in Rio.
She’s had far less luck convincing anyone else.