Photo: Matthias Hangst / Staff via Getty Image
  /  10.04.2023

In the gymnastics world, there has never been anyone like Simone Biles. At first glance, that may appear to be a lofty statement, but there are more than enough facts to back it up. In 2019, she became the most decorated gymnast, male or female, in World Championship history. Most recently, Biles expanded on that tally by taking gold in the team competition as well as the floor exercise. She also added a bronze medal in the balance beam event. But that’s not all people are talking about. We’re accustomed to her bringing home the hardware, but the four-time Olympic gold medalist is taking things a bit further as she tacked on yet another signature move at the latest World Artistic Gymnastic Championships. The 26-year-old became the first woman to land the Yurchenko double pike vault in the international competition. It will now be called The Biles II.

The Yurchenko family of vaults includes all variations of the move that boast a round-off entry on the springboard and back handspring onto the vaulting table; the skill was first performed by Natalia Yurchenko in 1982. It is the most common vault in gymnastics, but The Biles II has the highest difficulty score of the group – a 6.4. In case you haven’t watched the sport in a while, a perfect 10 is no longer the standard. Today’s rankings combine difficulty with execution. The execution score begins at 10 and is decreased by deductions determined by the judges. During the qualifying round, Biles scored a 15.266 on the vault, which included an automatic half-point deduction for having a coach as a spotter due to the vault’s difficulty.

The Biles II is the fifth signature skill named for the 19-time world champion – two on the vault, one on the balance beam, and two more on the floor exercise. Before The Biles II vault, there was The Biles, which debuted in 2018. On floor, her two signature passes were in 2013 and 2019. On beam, her eponymous move is a dismount with a double twist and double-tucked backflip, which debuted in 2019 as well. If you missed her latest historical feat, you may just have to settle for videos on the ‘net as one of her coaches, Laurent Landi, told NBC that Biles may not perform the vault during the team competition. “People, I hope, realize that maybe that’s one of the last times you’re going to see a vault like that in your life from a women’s gymnast. I think it’s time to appreciate that.”

What gymnastics fans everywhere probably appreciate even more is her return to the sport following a two-year hiatus. After opting out of the team finals at the Tokyo Olympics with a bad case of the “twisties,” she’s back. For those unfamiliar, the twisties refer to a mental block that takes away a gymnast’s air awareness when twisting – something that can be catastrophic. The famed athlete was able to win bronze on the balance beam on the final day, even while fighting mental and physical battles, and she was ready for a break. Biles told reporters, “Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out. I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being.” That break would last two years with rumors, gossip, and downright nasty attitudes from those who labeled her “weak” and a quitter despite all that she had given to the sport. Even with the grueling training that elite gymnasts do from an early age, it was pretty much unheard of for someone at Biles’ level to say enough is enough; especially at the Olympics. While many criticized her, those more deeply entrenched in the sport admired her decision. It came not only due to the twisties, but also things outside the gym that were far more sinister.

With the Tokyo Games pushed back a year due to COVID, Biles and several other U.S. gymnasts were preparing to testify about the FBI’s mishandling of its investigation into the case of Larry Nassar. The longtime Team USA doctor had been accused by more than 150 athletes of sexual abuse that he had thinly veiled as medical treatment. Nassar wasn’t arrested until December of 2016 despite allegations presented over a year earlier. Biles, along with former teammates McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, and Maggie Nichols, among others, testified during a Senate Judiciary hearing in September 2021. A month earlier, in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biles shared her criticism of “an entire system that enabled and perpetuated (Nassar’s) abuse.” Although the doctor was sentenced to 40 to 175 years behind bars back in 2018, the fight isn’t over. Fifty four years old at the time of his sentencing, Nassar’s reign of terror is over, as he will die in prison, but more work needs to be done to prevent this from happening in the future. That work was at the forefront of Biles’ mind as she went through testifying, and it understandably took a toll. Biles told New York Magazine that she actually should have quit way before Tokyo. “If you looked at everything I’ve gone through for the past seven years, I should have never made another Olympic team. I should have quit way before Tokyo when Larry Nassar was in the media for two years. It was too much.”

So, Biles took a break, healed, found love, and lived. The trailblazer helped to spearhead a new policy allowing all National Team members to receive more than eight mental healthcare visits each year. She got married to Green Bay Packers player Jonathan Owens earlier this year after dating since 2020. Then, after 732 days off, the Olympian returned. Though she looks silky smooth, crisp, and fearless, Biles let it be known that getting back into the gym was no small feat – even for her. In a Q&A on Instagram, she wrote, “When the twisties happen, you go right into the gym and work on it. I took over a year off and THEN came back… So I was petrified. But I’m fine. I’m twisting again. No worries. All is good.” That was an understatement, as the 2016 Olympic gold medalist competed in a U.S. National Team Camp in July, winning the all-around competition as well as vault, beam, and floor exercise. She finished third on the uneven bars. Still, at the U.S. Women’s World Championships Selection Event, Biles told, “I didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to compete again because there were multiple times this year where I was in the gym and I was like, ‘I’m actually terrified of this full-in, like, I’m not doing it again, never going to do it.’” She took a day-by-day approach and it led her to Antwerp, Belgium; the place where she won her first-ever all-around world championship 10 years ago at the age of 16. It was her global debut and the site of her global return. The pioneer came back to the world stage a 26-year old woman, strengthened by her journey inside and outside of the gym. Simone Biles has transcended her position as a role model to young, Black aspiring gymnasts; she is now an inspiration to women everywhere to prioritize their mental health, embrace the journey, and take it day by day.



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