ABOVE PHOTO: Simone Biles competes in the floor exercise during the U.S. women’s gymnastics championships, Friday, June 24, 2016, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
By Will Graves
ST. LOUIS — The national titles are starting to run together for Simone Biles, a three-year blur of near flawlessly executed routines and carry-on cases full of medals.
If Biles is being honest, the fourth straight all-around championship she cruised to last Sunday night wasn’t so much a competition as an exhibition and one more thing for Biles to scratch off her checklist before the next real test: Rio de Janeiro and the Summer Olympics.
It’s a destination Biles is finally allowing herself to think about after putting up a two-day total of 125.00 – the highest during her historic run at the top – to beat three-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman by nearly four points. Only this week’s Olympic Trials, a mere formality, stand between the 19-year-old Texan and the global stage.
“I guess there’s really no other steps besides trials and making the team,” Biles said. “We’re one step ahead again.”
Technically, Biles has been there for years. She hasn’t lost a meet since July 2013 while creating a gap between herself and the rest of the planet, one that shows no signs of closing with 40 days to go before opening ceremonies in Brazil. Biles began the night with a dynamic floor exercise that combines peerless tumbling with the kind of charisma that should play in living rooms across the world in August.
She followed it up with a difficult Amanar vault – one of the most challenging currently being done in competition – in which she seemed to drop out of the sky before landing. Only a minuscule hop stood between Biles and perfection, just enough of a miscue for judges to deduct a tenth of a point while giving her a 9.9 for execution.
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as perfect in gymnastics anymore,” Biles said. “They always find something.”
Biles is as close as the sport gets at the moment as the leader of a team that will be heavily favored to dominate the podium in Brazil. The five-woman Olympic squad won’t be officially announced until July 10. Biles’ place is secure, and the picture around her appears to be rapidly clearing up.
Raisman began the year struggling with her form following a disappointing – by her standards – performance at the 2015 world championships, when she failed to qualify for the all-around final after finishing behind Biles and Olympic champion Gabby Douglas during qualifying.
The 22-year-old spent the winter vowing to regain Coach Martha Karolyi’s trust and now finds herself in perhaps the finest stretch of a career that includes two golds and a bronze from the 2012 games.
Steady on beam. Powerful on floor. Efficient on uneven bars, Raisman may be the best gymnast in the world not named Biles at the moment. The current Olympic champion on floor exercise began the night with a gravity defying tumbling pass she managed to finish with a smile. She joked after the first round last Friday that staying within a couple of points of Biles would be a victory in itself. Raisman’s score of 60.650 on Sunday was just 1.5 behind her good friend.
“I think that I am better (than I was four years ago),” Raisman said. “And I feel like I’m on track to be a better gymnast than I was.”
Raisman isn’t the only one surging. So is electric 16-year-old Laurie Hernandez, who looks right at home on the big stage in her first year at the senior level. Her routines are is a study in attitude and aggression, character traits Karolyi prizes as much as any cleanly executed skill.
Gabby Douglas, trying to become the first gymnast in nearly 50 years to repeat as Olympic champion, ended up fourth and admitted she needed to improve after a sloppy night last Friday. Douglas got off to a shaky start as she fought to stay on bars – the event that first drew Karolyi’s admiration – and posted a pedestrian 14.5. She was better on balance beam, landing her dismount with an emphatic stick that might as well have served as a reminder of what she can do when she’s on.
“Trials, I’ll be better at trials,” Douglas said with a laugh.
The only real drama heading to San Jose is likely for the fifth and final spot. Madison Kocian, who won gold on uneven bars at last fall’s world championships, continued her impressive comeback from a leg injury in February. Though she was second to Ashton Locklear on bars at nationals, she also finished in the top half of the field on beam and floor, versatility that would be valuable in international competitions as Karolyi tries to put together a group for the three-up, three-count crucible that is the Olympic team finals.
Karolyi began the weekend with a team in mind and didn’t see much to change her preferences over the course of two nights. Whoever hops the plane to Rio will go as the heavy favorites to bring back copious amounts of gold led by Biles, who is head – and shoulders, legs and everything else – above the rest.