KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fifteen seconds into her first routine, Simone Biles wanted to walk off the floor and out of the building on the first night of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She was half-kidding.
“I felt like I had tears in my eyes,” Biles said, seriously, of overcooking her opening floor exercise tumbling pass, a triple twisting double somersault that no woman had ever performed, and putting her hands down on the landing. “That was, like, the only time I truly felt sorry for myself in a real long time.”
Yet Biles leads nationals by a comfortable 1.75 points going into Sunday’s final day of competition. She will almost certainly extend her six-year win streak and tie the record of six U.S. women’s all-around titles.
The surprise in second place, Sunisa Lee, beat Biles in the execution score. So did three other gymnasts. Which underscores what makes Biles more dominant in this Olympic cycle after taking a year off post-Rio and changing coaches.
Biles, who for so long out-executed the competition, is now out-daring the world more than ever before. Her difficulty score, which added to the execution makes up the total score per apparatus, is out of this world.
She had 1.8 points more difficulty than the next-highest gymnast on Friday. That’s .45 more points of start value per apparatus, in a sport often decided by a tenth here or there. All of the other contenders were bunched within 1.5 points of each other in difficulty.
“I’m trying to build the best routine, the most efficient routine that she can do with the highest start value,” said Laurent Landi, who with his wife, Cecile, make up Biles’ new coaching team since her return to training in November 2017. “The bottom line is, that floor routine, she hits 15.5 with that. Nobody can get close to that. That’s what I want to try to do. Good bar routine, 14.5. Good beam routine, 15.5. We aim between 60 and 61 points.”
Biles scored 58.65 on Friday, but hit 60 at the U.S. Classic last month. No other woman has broken 58 points the last two years, according to TheGymter.net.
Biles won last year’s world title by 1.693 points, the largest women’s margin of victory at worlds under the 12-year-old Code of Points, which replaced the perfect-10 system. She apologized afterward because she fell twice (while competing with a kidney stone).
Incredibly, Biles had 2.7 more points of difficulty in the world all-around final than any other gymnast. Of her four Olympic/world all-around titles in the last Olympic cycle, Biles’ biggest D score advantage was nine tenths. Aly Raisman was only six tenths behind in difficulty at the Rio Olympics, where Biles won by 2.1 with a 1.5-point edge in execution.
There’s the difference in Biles 2.0, at least so far.
Biles said she has no idea what her difficulty scores are. Told of the whopping edge of 2.7 points at worlds, she guffawed.
“I shouldn’t be laughing, that’s not funny,” she said, catching herself. “We don’t try to say, oh, how far ahead can I be in difficulty? But it’s more of, how much can I push myself?”
Biles just does what the Landis tell her. In their nearly two years together, that’s meant adding never-been-done skills on balance beam, floor exercise and vault. Her biggest overall upgrade came on the uneven bars, where she earned a world medal for the first time last year.
“She did an Olympics and was incredibly successful,” said Chellsie Memmel, a 2008 Olympian who has been a judge at all six of Biles’ national championships. “Now it’s like why not add more into it and see how much she can push the envelope? And it’s insane.”
The insanity came in those first 15 seconds Friday. Biles’ unprecedented triple-double on floor would be scored at a J value, Memmel predicted before the competition and Biles repeated after. Skills are assigned a value that corresponds to a point total. An A receives one tenth, a B gets two tenths and so on. Memmel never thought she would see somebody crack the one-point barrier with a J.
“A lot of girls are counting Ds,” Memmel said of floor exercise tumbling passes. “She’s not counting any Ds. They’re all above.”
NBC Sports analyst Nastia Liukin competed with Memmel in the first Olympic cycle under the Code of Points. Her head-to-head battle with Shawn Johnson at the 2008 Beijing Games was so tight that they had the exact same D scores in the all-around final, which Liukin won by six tenths.
Liukin said that her coach and father, Valeri, sat her down a few months before the Games to show how she compared with Johnson’s D scores. He also wrote out Liukin’s Olympic uneven bars routine, which would be valued at an astronomical 7.7 D score, a year and a half before the Games.
“A great coach, that’s what they’ll do because they don’t want us to worry about that,” Liukin said. “When you’re 16, 17, you maybe don’t even really quite understand.”
Cecile Landi said that Biles’ ideal total difficulty would be 25.6 points combining the four events, which is two tenths more than her 2018 World Championships total.
It would be another four tenths higher, except they’ve decided not to attempt Biles’ unprecedented vault that she got named after her at last year’s all-around final.
Laurent Landi said doing that vault, without a warm-up, at October’s worlds, along with the new beam and floor skills would be “too much pressure, and I don’t want her to feel overwhelmed.”
“She can do it, we know that,” Cecile Landi said. “But, the risk, is it worth it? You’ve got to be careful. She’s 22, and we’ve got to make sure we’ve got one more year to go.”
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sam Mikulak winning a sixth U.S. all-around title by the largest margin in history is fantastic for Sam Mikulak. But it might not be the best result for a U.S. men’s gymnastics program that’s in a team medal drought.
“It’s good and bad,” Mikulak said after tallying 174.15 points over two nights of competition, prevailing by a Simone Biles-like 5.55 points. “It is just a weird place for the U.S. right now. You could probably make the argument that, maybe, this is the easiest time period for USA Gymnastics for a guy like me, and so it doesn’t quite hold as much to it right now.
“It’s nice to have margin and to be scoring the way I do, but I guess, in my own mind, I try keeping the bar to where Sam wants the bar to be.”
That bar is out of reach for the rest of the country.
“Hopefully this young group can start getting on his level,” said Yul Moldauer, a distant runner-up to Mikulak a second straight year, “but Sam’s so much older than us.”
Mikulak was the only man in the field with Olympic experience. He watered-down routines on the opening night Thursday and still took a 2.75-point lead into Saturday’s final night of competition.
Mikulak broke his tie with retired, three-time Olympian Blaine Wilson for the most U.S. men’s all-around titles in the last 50 years. He broke his own record for margin of victory since the perfect 10 was replaced by an open-ended scoring system in 2006.
Mikulak, known for falling once or twice among 12 routines at a nationals, said he went 12 for 12 this week and that it felt the best of his six crowns. The gap to the rest of the field widened due to injuries. Full results are here.
Moldauer, who earned the 2017 U.S. title while Mikulak was limited by an Achilles tear, took around a month off this spring due to elbow inflammation. Another 2018 World team member, Colin Van Wicklen, withdrew after sustaining a concussion in Thursday’s warm-ups.
Jonathan Horton, a retired, two-time Olympian who in September will help select the five-man team for October’s world championships, said it’s not ideal for Mikulak to dominate domestically year after year.
“It’s nice to see Sam leading the charge, but it would be good to see some guys on his tail,” he said.
The U.S. men last earned a world championships medal in 2014 (bronze), making this their longest major meet podium drought since the turn of the millennium. They were fifth at the last two Olympics despite placing first and second in qualifying. They were fourth at last year’s worlds behind powers China, Japan and Russia.
“The team collectively is doing a good job, but there’s a bit of a tentative feel to U.S. men’s gymnastics right now,” Horton said. “Being tentative is not going to get us on the podium, but we have a year [until the Olympics]. That’s enough time, but we need guys to start pushing.”
Mikulak is comparing himself only to foreign competitors.
At 2018 Worlds, he went into the last all-around rotation in third place but struggled on his best event, high bar, to drop to fifth. Mikulak finally earned his first career individual world medal a few days later, a bittersweet high bar bronze.
It’s clear that the U.S. is leaning on Mikulak more than ever in his eight years on the national team.
Last year, he was put on all six apparatuses in the team final, which no U.S. man had ever done since the format switched to three-up, three-count after the 2000 Olympics. But that kind of strategy could work out in the U.S.’ favor come the Tokyo Olympics, where team sizes drop from five gymnasts to four, and multiple countries will be putting their stars on every apparatus.
“Sam is creating very positive rhythm doing all six events that we want to continue to keep consistent,” U.S. high-performance director Brett McClure said. “If he makes it all six in the lineup, we’re not worried at all.”
McClure is optimistic, noting he has seen personal-best performances from other top Americans in the last year. His stated goal since moving into the leadership role post-Rio has been to get the team back on the podium.
“It only gives us a little bit more confidence knowing that, hey, maybe this is our year to sneak on the podium,” he said. “We feel good about our chances.”
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Shane Wiskus saved himself from a scary fall by catching the high bar with one arm at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Saturday.
“I’ve actually done it a few times in the gym, not going to lie,” he said. “I was really hoping it wasn’t going to happen this weekend, but at least I practiced it, and I was ready for the catch.”
Wiskus, 20 and the NCAA all-around silver medalist for Minnesota, was attempting a Cassina, named after 2004 Olympic high bar champion Igor Cassina of Italy. But normally all high bar release moves are caught with two hands.
On the rare occasion gymnasts fail and catch with just one hand, they usually can’t hang onto the bar. (Though 2012 Olympic high bar champion Epke Zonderland of the Netherlands once defied this, too).
Wiskus scored a 13.15 on his high bar routine with more than two tenths of deductions. He ended up fourth in the all-around, 6.55 points behind winner Sam Mikulak. More on Mikulak’s win and the state of the U.S. men’s team here.
Wiskus is among the contenders to make October’s five-man world championships team, which will be named after a September selection camp.
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