True to form, following a world-best performance in qualifying, Biles and her teammates defied controversy as effortlessly as they defied gravity Tuesday at the world gymnastics championships, routing the field to claim a fifth consecutive team gold medal and seventh overall.
In the process, Biles, the reigning Olympic and world all-around champion, became the most decorated female gymnast in history, collecting her 21st world championship medal to move past Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina. Her haul of gold medals at world championships — which now stands at 15 — was already a record. And she is expected to add to her tally over the next five days, when she’ll vie for her seventh world all-around title and compete for medals in all four event finals.
Russia took silver, 5.801 points behind the United States, and Italy was the surprise bronze medalist.
While Biles shouldered the scoring load, it was a four-gymnast effort to claim the team gold. Under the format, each of the eight countries that advanced to Tuesday’s team final chose three gymnasts to compete on each of the four events. All three scores counted, so any athlete’s misstep was costly to the group.
Like Biles, 16-year-old Sunisa Lee, the youngest on the squad, competed in all four events for the United States. Just one year removed from junior competition, she finished second to Biles in qualifying to advance to Thursday’s all-around competition. With a team gold at stake, she led the Americans on uneven bars but fell and wobbled twice on beam.
Rounding out the U.S. team were Jade Carey, 19, of Phoenix, who scored well on vault and floor; Kara Eaker, 16, of Grain Valley, Mo.; and Grace McCallum, 16, of Isanti, Minn.
Despite battling her customary nerves at the outset, Biles was deservedly proud of her performance, posting the top marks on three of the four events: vault, beam and floor. Yet she gave herself “probably an eight out of 10” when asked to rank her showing.
As for moving past the long-since-retired Khorkina to claim the record number of world championship medals, Biles called it “kind of crazy.”
“I think that’s really impressive for someone to be able to do that; I guess that’s me,” Biles said with a smile. “I haven’t got a chance to process it yet, but I think we’ll do some celebrating tonight for all of it — for the team, for the medal count, for the fifth year in a row.”
In her case, she is pursuing a standard that she alone can reach.
Biles made history here on Day 2 of qualifications, having two new skills named for her by becoming the first to successfully land them on the world or Olympic stage: the Biles II on floor, a triple-twisting double somersault; and the Biles dismount on beam, a double-twisting double somersault.
But instead of celebrating Biles’s innovation and risk-taking, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), in effect, penalized her by deliberately devaluing her unprecedented beam dismount. Biles made her displeasure clear on social media; USA Gymnastics “respectfully disagreed” via a formal letter.
The federation responded that it didn’t want to give lesser gymnasts an incentive for attempting such a difficult, hazardous skill.
“Am I in a league of my own?” Biles said afterward when asked about the snub. “Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t credit me for what I’m doing.”
On Tuesday, Biles chose a slightly safer dismount, with one twist in her double somersault.
Despite McCallum’s hiccup on uneven bars and Lee’s fall on beam, the Americans extended their lead after each rotation on a day littered with tumbles. They closed the competition with another strength, floor exercise, sending out Lee, Carey and Biles.
By the time Biles closed the competition, the United States had such a hefty lead that she could have taken a nap after her first two tumbling passes and still clinched the team gold. Nonetheless, she dazzled, hitting impossible heights with her triple-double and sticking the landing. Wearing an enormous smile, she tumbled on to her sassy music as the crowd clapped along.
Biles and Lee return to the competition floor Thursday to contest the all-around, which consists of the 24 top-scoring gymnasts from qualifications, with a maximum of two per country.
On Wednesday, the U.S. men will compete in the team event after barely making the eight-country cut in an error-strewn qualifying effort. They’re not expected to medal, lagging well behind top qualifiers Russia, China and Japan.
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