Simone Biles Set a New Standard. Can U.S.A. Gymnastics Do the Same?
Biles remains the world leader in women’s gymnastics. Her country’s governing body acknowledges it still has work to do.
ImageSimone Biles finished 4.95 points ahead of her closest competitor.
Simone Biles finished 4.95 points ahead of her closest competitor.CreditCreditDenny Medley/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
By Danielle Allentuck
Aug. 12, 2019
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Simone Biles stuck one final landing, this one on the uneven bars, and sealed the all-around championship that had been hers to lose all weekend. Then she ran off the mat with her tongue out and her head bobbing back and forth. There was a huge smile on her face.
“I was a lot happier today,” Biles said after winning her record-tying sixth United States Gymnastics national championship Sunday night. “I feel I haven’t been as confident on bars this year as I was last year. To finally do a good routine like I can do it, I was really happy.”
Her exuberance, and her joy, after her win were a stark contrast from the feelings she had displayed on Wednesday, two days before the competition. Then, Biles had shed tears while discussing the current state of U.S.A. Gymnastics, the governing board for the sport in America.
It was hard, Biles had said, to continue to represent an organization “having had them fail us so many times.”
“How,” she had asked, “can we trust them?”
One year out from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the United States championships were the perfect forum to assess the two poles of American gymnastics: the gold-standard excellence of Biles, and the continuing questions about U.S.A. Gymnastics.
Biles did her part. Her winning performance included two skills never executed successfully before in women’s gymnastics competition: a triple-double (two flips with three twists) on floor exercise and a double-double dismount (two flips with two twists) on balance beam. She finished 4.95 points ahead of the next closest competitor, Sunisa Lee — an advantage that represents a landslide in gymnastics scoring.
U.S.A. Gymnastics, meanwhile, remains a body in turmoil, cycling through leaders and still struggling to emerge from the looming shadow of the Lawrence G. Nassar scandal. Nassar, a former doctor for both Team U.S.A. and Michigan State, was accused of molesting over 300 athletes under the guise of medical treatment. Biles revealed more than a year ago that she, too, was one of Nassar’s victims.
Biles said that she still did not trust U.S.A. Gymnastics to protect its athletes, and that it was difficult for her to compete for an organization that had hurt her so many times.
“I just shut it out,” Biles said, when asked how she controls her emotions when she competes. “I’m here to do a job.”
The federation has hired three chief executives in the last two years. Li Li Leung, a childhood gymnast and former N.B.A. executive who in February became the latest charged with leading the troubled organization, said she hoped to bring stability to the governing body.
“I acknowledge that we still have a lot of work to do,” Leung said last week, before the championships opened. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. I think I’m in Mile 1 of the marathon.”
U.S.A. Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in December, and it is currently in mediation to resolve some of the lawsuits it faces related to Nassar’s years of sexual abuse of gymnasts. Although Leung said she was not allowed to disclose specifics because of the ongoing litigation, she said the decision to file for bankruptcy was made so that the organization could resolve the claims of the Nassar victims in an “efficient and short amount of time.” No victims have received any payouts from U.S.A. Gymnastics, and there is no timeline for when any will occur.
The organization currently has no sponsors, with the exception of the gymnastics apparel company GK, and Leung said no new partnerships would be sought until U.S.A. Gymnastics had its house in order.
In November, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee moved toward stripping U.S.A. Gymnastics of its certification, which would give the U.S.O.P.C. full control of the national governing body. Leung said there were four things U.S.A. Gymnastics needed to improve on to stop this process: leadership stability, financial stability, athlete safety and building trust within the community.
Leung has made it a point to be present and out in the open, doing her part, it seems, to contribute to the last pillar. She was out on the competition floor hugging and cheering the athletes over the weekend, and she said she had spoken with more than 400 athletes, coaches and gymnastics club owners during her five-month tenure.
Another positive, Leung said, was the record attendance at the championships. A crowd of about 12,000 watched the women’s competition Sunday.
“We are starting to rebuild trust in our community in terms of taking part in our events,” Leung said.
The more likely explanation was that the crowd had come primarily to see Biles; the attendance at the women’s competition was nearly double that for the men.
In addition to Biles, the crowd got to see the next generation of gymnasts start to make their next steps toward qualifying for the Olympics. Biles was the only member of the 2016 Olympic team competing in Kansas City.
Lee, 16, dazzled with elegant routines throughout the weekend. Behind her were Grace McCallum, 16, and Morgan Hurd, 18. Although not a top contender in the all-around, Jade Carey, 19, showcased her power in the vault and the floor exercise, finishing second only to Biles in each event. Riley McCusker, 18, a bronze medalist last year, scratched from the competition because of an illness.
Biles, though, appears to be in even better shape than she was in 2016, when she won the all-around competition, even if her perfectionist tendencies showed through even in victory. Biles said she still felt as if she had work to do. She was angry with her routines on the first day of competition on Friday, when she wasn’t able to control the landing on the triple-double and touched both hands down at the end of the move. She rebounded on Sunday, completing the move with only a slight hop backward.
“I’m just happy that I landed it,” Biles said. “I feel like after night one, my confidence got shot down. I was really worried about it going into today.”
Next up on the road to Tokyo: the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, in October. The team will be selected after a training camp at the end of September. The competition that will follow the camp will be open to the public, another change as the organization aims for more transparency.