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Simone Biles breaks record for world medals won by a gymnast

Simone Biles performs on the balance beam 2019 World Gymnastics Championships in Stuttgart, Germany. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

STUTTGART, Germany — Simone Biles’s gymnastics crackle with supercharged power, style and creativity that can’t be reduced to medal counts. Even the unschooled eye can tell that she is a once-in-a-generation athlete, performing seemingly impossible feats with joy and energy to spare.

But for those beholden to statistics, Biles delivered a history-making share on the final day of the World Gymnastics Championships on Sunday, breaking the record for the most world medals earned by a gymnast, male or female, in winning the 24th of her career — a gold on the balance beam.

Then, after the equivalent of a lunch break, she returned to the arena and won another gold — this one, on floor exercise, with a routine that included the stunning, triple-twisting, double somersault that she alone has successfully landed in competition and extended her record-setting world medal tally to 25.

Upon concluding her final routine in what is likely her final world championship, the 22-year-old Biles seemed to take a dramatic pause on the tumbling floor as cheers rained down from the capacity crowd.

But she was simply too exhausted to stand up and walk off, she explained afterward, utterly sapped from 10 days of competition in which she left no doubt that she is history’s greatest gymnast.

“I just couldn’t breathe, honestly,” Biles said after collecting her breath and regaining her smile. “I just couldn’t move, I was so tired. [I felt like], ‘I’m going to stay here because if I come back up, I’m literally going to be breathing like a dog!’ ”

There was so much to be proud of:

Breaking Belarusan Vitaly Scherbo’s mark of 23 world medals, which had stood since 1996.

Conquering gymnastics’ least predictable event, the balance beam, with near flawless execution of the world’s most technically demanding routine to win gold with a whopping 15.066 points. China’s Liu Tingting (14.433) and Li Shijia (14.300) took silver and bronze, respectively.

Repeating as world champion on floor with, again, the world’s most difficult routine. Despite stepping out of bounds on an over-exuberant tumbling sequence, Biles scored 15.133 points — well ahead of her nearest competitors, who included fellow American Sunisa Lee, 16, who took silver (14.133) in her world championships debut. Russia’s Angelina Melnikova (14.066) took bronze.

Gold medalist Simone Biles returned to Houston Aug. 12 after a winning performance at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Mo. (Video: Reuters)

But what meant most to Biles, apart from the medals, was the way in which she extended the boundaries of women’s gymnastics by introducing two skills at this competition — skills that now bear her name.

The competitive shelf-life of elite female gymnasts is sadly short. Only the rare champions manage to extend their careers to two Olympic cycles, as Biles will do next summer at the 2020 Tokyo Games. Those who do tend to shift their emphasis from athleticism to artistry as they mature and their bodies age.

What makes Biles peerless is that she continues to evolve in both the difficulty and artistry of her skills. At 22, she is doing more difficult gymnastics than she did in sweeping to five Olympic medals, four of them gold, at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Game when she was 19.

After taking a 12-month hiatus from competition following her Olympic triumph, Biles has added two original skills to her routines — a double-twisting, double-somersault dismount on beam and a triple-twisting double somersault in her floor routine.

Because Biles was the first to successfully land them in a world competition, both skills are named for her in gymnastics’ official Code of Points. Long after she retires, they will be known as the Biles dismount on beam and the Biles II on floor (to distinguish it from another skill she pioneered on floor that already is called the Biles).

According to Biles’s coach, Laurent Landi, it’s this impulse to create and extend the boundaries of what’s possible that stokes her competitive fire more than any mountain of medals and trophies.

“When you had so much success in the sport, what brings you back in the gym is something original — some different stuff,” Laurent explained. “It’s not just winning. … It’s much better to come with a purpose [such as] putting your name in the Code of Points or trying a different skill that nobody else ever did before.”

With her parents, Nellie and Ron, looking on from the stands, the 4-foot-8 Biles exuded effortlessness and euphoria in spinning, leaping and tumbling up and down the four-inch-wide balance beam. The only pity was that Biles’s fluency on the beam masks the staggering rigor of her skills and the intense training that makes them possible.

With the history-making 24th medal at stake, Biles opted not to perform the daring double-double dismount. The risk outweighed the reward.

She held nothing back on her floor exercise. Why would she, as the reigning Olympic and four-time (soon to be five-time) world champion on the floor?

While Biles made history Sunday, she had set a record of some sort each day she competed at these world championships.

On Tuesday, she led the U.S. women to their fifth consecutive world team medal and, in the process, eclipsed Svetlana Khorkina as the most decorated female gymnast by collecting her 21st world medal.

On Thursday, she won her fifth individual all-around world gold by a record margin, pantomiming a mic-drop upon completion.

She tied Scherbo’s record 23 world medals Saturday. And on Sunday, she surged past.

Outside competition, Biles’s personal growth and tenacity have been equally impressive.

Biles has competed at the senior ranks of elite gymnastics for seven years without evidence of burnout. Not pushed by overzealous parents or harsh coaches, she is driven by her own zeal to extend her limits. In this respect, Biles is competing against herself rather than the rest of the world. As Nellie Biles told her daughter via Twitter at the outset of this competition: “Be the Best Simone.”

Moreover, in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal in U.S. women’s gymnastics, Biles has developed a voice that commands attention. She publicly acknowledged in January 2018 that she, too, was a survivor of the abuse perpetrated by former national team doctor Larry Nassar. And via social media and in interviews, Biles has castigated USA Gymnastics for failing to protect young gymnasts and demanded overdue structural and leadership change — all while making her peace, at least outwardly, with her role as the embattled organization’s most marketable star.

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