KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The competition isn’t the judges. Or the rest of the field. Or even the sport she’s dominated for the better part of a decade. Simone Biles conquered all of them long ago.
What drives Biles is the voice in her head, the one that tells the best gymnast in the world that perfection is the only standard, even while attempting skills that no other woman on the planet (and very few men) can match.
That’s why her anger was so palpable during the opening night of the U.S. women’s gymnastics championships on Friday. She shorted her triple-twisting double-flip (a “triple double”) on floor, a mistake that the Olympic champion on the verge of tears. Her uneven bars were messy. The block on her Amanar vault dangerously close to disaster.
That her all-around total of 58.650 led Sunisa Lee by 1.750 — putting a sixth national title easily within reach heading into Sunday — is immaterial.
“I still get really frustrated because I know how good I am and how well I can do,” she said. “So I just want to do the best routine for the audience and for myself out here.”
For Biles, that means packing her sets with an unparalleled level of difficulty, a choice she makes not out of ego by respect for her immense talent.
She didn’t have to add the triple-double to the end of her first tumbling pass. She just wanted to see if she could do it. She didn’t have to throw in a double-twisting double-flip dismount on beam. But after toying with it in practice for the last five years just for kicks, she figured it was time to see if she could do it when it mattered.
The results on Friday were mixed. She was a little too jacked on floor and the inability to control her adrenaline “efficiently” as coach Laurent Landi put it, cost her. She shorted the landing, lunged forward and briefly placed both hands on the ground to steady herself.
“I’ve never fallen on one or anything,” Biles said. “Just to make a mistake like that. It kind of irritated me.”
And it didn’t go away. She practically rolled her eyes after both of her vaults. Her uneven bars — an event she says she’s been fighting with for a while now — lacked their usual crispness.
A smile — maybe of joy, maybe of relief, likely a mixture of both — finally emerged after she drilled her double-twisting double-flip dismount on beam. Such are the standards Biles has set for herself that on a night when she finished with the top score on three of the four events and finished third on the other she seemed more annoyed than elated.
Biles did not return to competition last summer simply intent on staying at the level that made her the greatest gymnast of her generation and perhaps of all time. A year out from a return to the Olympics, she has thrown in upgrades designed to keep her engaged and see just how high she can soar.
The level of difficulty she packs into each routine is so high that even when she can’t quite pull it off — as happened at the end of her first tumbling pass on floor, when her triple-double ended with her lunging forward and putting both hands down to steady herself — she is still well clear of the rest of the world.
Biles leads 16-year-old Sunisa Lee by 1.75 points heading into Sunday’s final day of competition. Jade Carey, who is nearing an automatic spot on the 2020 U.S. Olympic team as a vault specialist, put together four solid routines and is third at 56.100.
The Americans are in the process of trying to figure out who will join Biles on the 2019 world championship team. The field looks muddled with the selection camp a month away.
Riley McCusker is fourth despite a fall on uneven bars to end the night. Leanne Wong and Trinity Thomas are tied for fifth. Jordan Chiles, a teammate of Biles at World Champions Centre in Houston, is seventh.
Morgan Hurd, the 2017 world champion, appeared to be on her way to bouncing back from an uneven performance in the Pan American Games last week until her floor routine, when she bailed out of her second tumbling pass to fall from second to eighth overall.