I woke up Monday morning to find Simone Biles had gone viral — again. My social feeds were filled with video of the 22-year-old gymnast performing a mind-blowing triple-twisting, double somersault during the floor exercise event at the 2019 national championships on Sunday. Everyone, from gymnastics diehards to casual fans to Chrissy Teigen were united in their awe.
And with good reason. The video of Biles, whether played at regular speed or in slow motion, is astounding. It shows the Olympic champion lifting off the floor and initiating the first of three twists while still rising. At her peak height, she seems to hang in the air as she wraps in another full twist before starting her third twist on her way back down to the mat below. It reminds you of Michael Jordan hanging in the air as he made an impossible shot, only more impressive.
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I’ve spent almost my entire life — I can’t account for years zero through five — as a fan of gymnastics, and the better part of the last decade writing about it. During most of those years, the sport received scant mainstream attention outside of the Summer Olympics. I can’t count the number of times I was told by an editor that gymnastics was a “niche” sport and that they could only justify running stories about it in or around the Olympics. So it was quite exciting to see people outside of gymnastics’ traditional audience sharing Biles’ performance and talking about it online. The so-called “niche” sport maybe wasn’t so niche after all. But such is the power of Simone Biles.
Historically, the coverage of women’s gymnastics tracks with how women’s sports in general are covered. When female athletes make headlines the way Biles has all weekend, it’s usually connected to something major, like the Olympics or World Cup, not to a regular season game or an off-year national championships. And once that major event is over, said athlete is forgotten until the megaevent rolls around. Of course, during those intervening years, the women are still training and competing, still pulling off incredible physical feats on the field and apparatus, but that usually isn’t enough. These elite athletes have to give the media and public a reason beyond their unbelievable skills to really take notice.
Biles, at least for a moment, was able to shift the paradigm of how we talk about women’s sports. She has transcended her chosen sport — evidenced by her name being spoken about in the same breath as the universal greats like Serena Williams in tennis and Michael Phelps in swimming — while also making the conversation about her chosen sport. Specifically, she has sparked a conversation because of the way she is pushing gymnastics forward. Because while her routine is dazzling no matter how much you know about gymnastics, it is also technically special due to the two completely astounding skills she added to her already jam-packed repertoire.
While her routine is dazzling no matter how much you know about gymnastics, it is also technically special due to the two completely astounding skills she added to her already jam-packed repertoire.
In addition to the triple double she nailed on Sunday night, she also performed a double-twisting, double somersault off the balance beam, becoming the first person to ever do so in competition. If Biles successfully performs these skills at the upcoming world championships in Stuttgart, they will be named for her in the official "Code of Points." (These two elements would be her third and fourth named skills, respectively.)
Indeed, the coverage of Biles seems almost divorced from the outcome. Biles wins everything because she enters most competitions with nearly a two-point head start due to the difficulty of her exercises. The results almost feel like an afterthought. Sure, they get a mention in every story because if sportswriting is about anything, it’s about labeling people as winners or losers.
But with Biles, it’s really about the gymnastics, the things that she does and the way that she does them. In a way, it’s similar to how her good friend, Katelyn Ohashi, went viral earlier this year. The former UCLA gymnast’s floor routine spread online, not because of the role it played in her school’s victory in a January competition, but for how she did it and the feelings it evoked in viewers. For once it was the performance, not the outcome, that mattered.
With the Tokyo Olympics still a year off, it's both surprising and heartening that fans are already paying attention to Biles now. But even this attention still feels inadequate. Biles is the greatest gymnast of all time and arguably the most dominant athlete currently competing in any sport. She was the greatest gymnast of all time even before she did that triple double. She shouldn’t have to do the seemingly impossible for us to remember that we’re living through the Age of Biles. We need to make the most of it.