RIO DE JANEIRO — If there’s a quibble to make with Simone Biles, it’s that she competes with such joy and weightless effervescence that she does herself a disservice, in a way, by making gymnastics look so easy.
You won’t catch her grimacing. She will never double over with exhaustion, tongue dangling, between routines.
For Biles, flipping through the air is such fun, such a party, that no theatrics are needed other than the few flecks of glitter she lines her eyes with so they match her sparkly leotard.
At Rio Olympic Arena on Thursday afternoon, Biles invited a raucous crowd in the stands and millions of viewers at home to her Olympic coronation, which concluded with a floor exercise that exploded with high-flying acrobatics and radiated sheer abandon.
After briefly ceding the lead midway through the competition on her weakest event, the uneven bars, Biles charged back to claim Olympic all-around gold, gymnastics’ most coveted prize, by more than two points over her U.S. teammate and role model Aly Raisman, whose silver was a testament to a 22-year-old’s gritty refusal to concede.
Russia’s Aliya Mustafina took a distant bronze.
A three-time world all-around champion, Biles, 19, was too young to compete at the 2012 London Games. So Olympic all-around gold, awarded for virtuosity on all four of the women’s events — vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor — was the only major individual award she hadn’t claimed.
The gold was Biles’s second of the Rio Games, coming 48 hours after she led the five-woman U.S. squad to team gold by a staggering eight-point margin over second-place Russia.
With two golds draped around her neck, she could add three more over the next few days, when she will compete in the event finals of vault, beam and floor exercise.
“It would be amazing!” Biles gushed. “But that’s crazy to think about.”
Raisman was overjoyed with her silver and broke down in tears the moment she struck the final pose of a floor routine that demanded every bit of her powerful athleticism and grace. With only Biles left to compete, Raisman knew she had clinched second place and was overcome by a collision of emotions — relief, exhaustion, gratitude and triumph — after missing an all-around bronze by a tiebreaker in 2012 and refusing to retire, battling on well past the age most female gymnasts move on.
With their one-two finish, Biles and Raisman became just the second pair of female gymnasts from the same country to claim gold and silver in the all-around, replicating the feat of Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson at the 2008 Beijing Games.
With her gold, Biles made history for the United States, too — the only nation to produce four consecutive Olympic all-around gold medalists (Carly Patterson, 2004; Liukin, 2008; Gabby Douglas, 2012; and now Biles.)
Asked whether she viewed Biles as the greatest female gymnast in history, Martha Karolyi, 73, the Romanian-schooled coach so instrumental in the development of all-around champions from Nadia Comaneci (1976), Mary Lou Retton (1984) on up to Biles, did not equivocate.
“I would say ‘Yes,’” Karolyi replied with a broad smile. “Now, after this competition, when she was able to beat her teammate by two points and the next-ranked gymnast with four points, that’s a very big statement for her talent, for her work and for the quality of her work.”
Biles, however, was disappointed by her imperfect landing on her opening vault — a 2½ -twist Amanar that only a handful of female gymnasts attempt. Still, her score topped those of the other 23 gymnasts vying for medals and established her as the leader on the first rotation.
From there, the Americans proceeded to the uneven bars, Biles’s weakest event, ill-suited to her compact, 4-foot-9 physique. But she was clean and precise, minimizing deductions judges could take for her execution of skills that admittedly lacked the difficulty (and point value) of the routines of taller specialists on the apparatus.
Mustafina, the reigning uneven-bar champion, edged past Biles for a narrow lead after staging an uneven-bar master class.
Balance beam followed. Few women attempt feats on the four-inch wide beam that are as technically difficult as Biles. And though she has drilled her routine to the point that her muscles need no direction, she also knew that the beam has a heartless way of exposing jitters.
After a huddle and fist-bump from longtime coach Aimee Boorman, Biles went to work. She wobbled, then caught herself. And though she stayed on, never missing a flip or spin, she wasn’t as bold and exuberant with her skills as she typically is.
“When it’s time to go on beam, everybody starts biting their nails,” Biles said later, confirming her nerves.
For both Americans, the chance to finish on floor exercise was perfect — the ideal stage for flaunting the full force of their athleticism and range of their artistry.
Mustafina, their biggest medal threat, preceded both Americans on floor and earned mediocre marks.
It set up perfectly for Raisman, the 2012 Olympic floor-exercise champion, and she shed every ounce of angst the moment her music started. Her tumbling was powerful, her dance elements, sophisticated.
When the crowd cheered, her tears erupted. With only Biles left to compete, there was no question she had clinched silver.
Biles’s only mistake was peeking at Raisman, eager to see her celebrating, before her own floor routine started.
“I saw Aly start to cry!” Biles recalled. “I thought, ‘My goodness, she’s going to make me cry before I got out, and that’s not going to be good.’ ”
It wasn’t good. It was great.
Since childhood, tumbling mats have always served as Biles’s canvas. And to a sassy samba beat, she painted furiously and brilliantly, flipping and leaping through the air at impossible heights, smiling so much you could almost hear her laughing out loud as she crisscrossed the floor.
No one could touch Biles on this afternoon. No gymnast soared so high.