ANTWERP, BELGIUM — Friday night’s all-around final at the world gymnastics championships at Antwerp’s Sportpaleis ended with a one-woman show: Simone Biles on floor.
Her routine, which is fittingly set to Israeli pop star Noa Kirel’s Eurovision song, “Unicorn,” is arguably the best 90 seconds in women’s gymnastics, more art exhibit than sporting effort. Each time the 26-year-old performs the routine, it gets better, her tumbling passes higher and more powerful, yet also more controlled. Wednesday, it clinched Team USA’s seventh-straight world championship title. Friday, despite a stumble at the beginning of her leap sequence, it sealed Biles’ sixth world all-around gold.
The floor routine that gave Simone Biles a record-tying sixth world all-around title. 👑
She now holds the record for the most combined world and Olympic medals (34). pic.twitter.com/t7XqQUo2Us
— NBC Olympics & Paralympics (@NBCOlympics) October 6, 2023
“I was emotional because I won my first world title here and now we’re back,” Biles said after the medal ceremony, where she appeared to wipe away tears. “It means everything to me, the fight and everything that I put in to get back to this place and feel comfortable and confident enough to compete. And you guys are never gonna believe me, but I’ve also had something in my eye for like four hours today that I could not get out.”
This ending to Biles’ decade-long world championship story — if it is, in fact, an ending — seems predetermined, as if the scriptwriters who crafted her remarkable career planned all along to call back to its beginning. “Full circle,” Biles said after making the six-woman team in September.
She won her first world all-around title in this very arena ten years ago, as a 16-year-old who was virtually unknown on the international scene. She wore braces and a pink leotard and for the last time in her career, was not the favorite to win. When she did, beating multiple Olympic and world champions, the announcer mispronounced her first name.
Now she is a six-time world all-around champion and the leader of Team USA whose first name (and its pronunciation) has become so widely known it’s unnecessary even to mention her last.
Biles, however, insists she was not in the writers’ room when they broke this part of her story. Instead, she says she’s just going with the flow, blowing wherever the wind — and her coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi — take her next. “I honestly don’t think I made a conscious decision,” Biles said last month about her return to international competition. “I really don’t think it was set in stone how far I was gonna go.”
Last year, Biles walked back into World Champions Centre, the Houston gym her parents own, without a plan. She’d taken more than a year away from gymnastics after withdrawing from all but one event at the Tokyo Olympics due to a dangerous loss of aerial awareness gymnasts refer to as the “twisties,” and wasn’t sure if she would ever return to competition. She didn’t know if she would regain her ability to twist or land the elite skills that kept her at the top for so long.
She’d been working with a therapist and she wanted to exercise, wanted to feel the feeling of doing elite gymnastics, wanted to know if she still could still do it. Not necessarily because she wanted to compete again, but because she wanted to know that she could.
Then, over margaritas at a Mexican restaurant with Cecile in the spring, Biles tossed out the idea of training in earnest. “She said, ‘I want to give myself a chance,'” Cecile said. “That’s when we knew we had to make a plan without telling her we had a plan. Because we knew the plan would freak her out.”
It’s a 14.433 for Simone Biles on the balance beam.
— NBC Olympics & Paralympics (@NBCOlympics) October 6, 2023
Cecile and Laurent, who have coached Biles since 2017, mapped out the next year and a half — U.S. Classics, Championships, world championships, Olympic trials, Paris Olympics — and what steps Biles would need to take to reach each.
“We started at the beginning of the year and toyed around with the idea of Classics,” Biles said last month at worlds team selection camp in Katy, Texas. “Then a couple of weeks before Classics, we’re like ‘Okay, we need a leo because we’re competing.’ That’s how the year has gone. ‘Okay, you’ve been selected for worlds camp. Okay, you’re going to worlds now.'”
With less than a year before the Olympics, Biles reiterated that she still does not have a plan.
“We do,” Cecile mouthed, pointing to herself and smiling as she walked behind Biles in Katy. “We have a plan.”
But even the Landis’ most audacious plan did not include Biles winning right out of the gate — which she did — or going undefeated in all-around competition in her first year back, including at world championships. That wasn’t where their heads were at. Winning wasn’t the point. Medals weren’t the point. The Landis were just happy to have Biles back in the mix, and more importantly, to have a happy Biles back in the gym.
“She’s such a different gymnast this time around,” Cecile said. “She’s older. She’s wiser. She truly is doing it for herself. I think she said that before, but this time around, she’s the one driving. Every competition we have with her, we truly try to enjoy it because like any gymnast, she could be done tomorrow. Every chance we get is like bonus time.”
Biles’ fans have turned out with that same awareness. At meets in Chicago and San Jose, they drove hours to attend podium training, wore t-shirts bearing Biles’ image and hoisted handmade signs to cheer her on in the all-around. In Antwerp, the U.S. team has had one of the largest fan contingents, many carrying signs in support of Biles even during the team competitions.
Before Friday’s all-around final, young gymnasts penned notes to her in multiple languages on a banner hanging in the event’s “fanzone.” When her floor score posted, clinching the gold, the arena erupted in applause.
Her fans know how much she’s been through to get back to this point. Here in Antwerp, she’s talked openly about her anxiety before each meet and how therapy has helped to calm her nerves. “I have some quotes on my phone that I go through and I do breathing exercises and visualization,” Biles said Friday. “I had a session with my therapist [after the team final].
“In therapy, that’s when all the emotions come up,” she said. “I really think about what I’ve done and what we’ve done to push the sport forward. But I don’t think it’ll hit me till I retire and look back. But tonight was a good start. We had an all-Black podium. That was amazing.” She shared it with her teammate, Shilese Jones, who took bronze.
“I looked at Simone and we were like, ‘We did it,'” Jones said. “To have Simone back out there and Rebecca [Andrade, silver medalist], it means so much to our community. I feel like it’s been a long time coming.”
It is hard to overstate Biles’ accomplishment in winning a sixth world all-around title — and standing atop a podium that featured three Black women. It’s easier to provide it with context.
Since 1934, seven American women, including Biles and national team coordinator Chellsie Memmel, have won the women’s world all-around title. American Shannon Miller won it twice, in 1993 and 1994, one of six women to do so. Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina became the first woman to win three, between 1997 and 2003. Biles has won six in six attempts.
“There’s no magic,” Cecile said after Biles led the team to its seventh-straight gold medal Wednesday. “She trains hard. I know she’s super gifted, but she’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen.”
Biles now owns a record 27 world championship medals. Twenty-one of them are gold. With 34 world and Olympic medals, she is the most decorated gymnast of all time and has four more opportunities to take home hardware from Antwerp. She qualified into every individual apparatus final here and will likely compete in the Paris Games next summer.
But there’s more.
On the opening day of women’s competition here in Antwerp, Biles landed a Yurchenko double pike during team qualification. It’s a skill she’s been working on for years and one she first landed at U.S. Classics in 2021, becoming the first woman to land the vault in competition. She’d planned to debut it internationally at the Tokyo Olympics a few months later, a requirement for the skill to bear her name, but never had the chance.
SIMONE HAS DONE IT‼️
— NBC Olympics & Paralympics (@NBCOlympics) October 1, 2023
When Biles returned to elite gymnastics at U.S. Classics in August, she landed the vault during podium training as if she’d never taken off a day. Unlike 2021, when she competed the skill only at select competitions, the Yurchenko double pike has become a staple of her performances. In September, her coaches submitted the vault to FIG, the International Gymnastics Federation, and they awarded it a 6.4 difficulty score, the highest of any vault competed in women’s gymnastics today. Sunday, the Yurchenko double pike became the fifth skill in FIG’s code of points to bear Biles’ name.
But if anything demonstrates that this time around, Biles is competing for herself and not for the approval of others — or for a score — it is this: Biles opts to have Laurent stand on the landing mat to spot her after she takes off from the vaulting table. Doing so means she incurs a .5 neutral deduction for having him there. It never looks like she needs him. Her vaults are so high Biles tends to nearly over-rotate her landings and often takes a step back. But knowing Laurent is there matters.
No matter how easy Biles makes the Yurchenko double pike look — and she makes it look easy — the vault is dangerous, especially if her hands were to slip off the table or she were to under-rotate the skill. Biles and her coaches know that she’s still susceptible to a relapse of whatever caused the twisties two years ago and her comfort, mental health and safety matter to them more than the score. Laurent standing on the mat during meets speaks as loudly to that fact as anything Biles or her coaches say in interviews.
And this time around, Biles is saying less. She talks with journalists only briefly after big meets and grants fewer interviews than in the past, all in an effort to help limit her anxiety and protect her emotional and mental health. In this, likely her final year as an elite gymnast, Biles’ actions are speaking loudly enough.