ST. LOUIS — Last week I was scrolling Instagram when I saw Simone Biles post a photo sitting in front of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, getting ready for the Olympic Trials. I’d had no idea which city was hosting the trials before that, but I nearly dropped my phone because St. Louis is so close! I can drive there!
I’ve been a casual gymnastics fan for my entire life, my first major gymnastics memories were Carly Patterson and Svetlana Khorkina battling at the Athens Olympics. I tune in for Nationals every year and get sucked in deep every Olympic cycle, but I had never actually seen live competitive gymnastics. Attending an Olympic trials just never felt like a realistic thing. I’ve covered five Super Bowls, but writing about Olympic Trials gymnastics? That felt like a whole other echelon of sports achievement. I don’t usually get nervous when I interview NFL players or coaches, but when I had a chance to interview Aly Raisman for SI Kids, in an extremely low-stakes, five-minute Q&A just a week or so after the Rio Olympics, I was so giddy that I got a red blotchy rash all over my neck.
So when I realized that Biles would be competing just 300 miles from me, and tickets were still available—I had to make the pilgrimage.
Biles told Glamour that her original plan was to retire after the Tokyo Olympics, her second Olympic games, but she admitted she might be back for more in Paris in 2024, the city where her coaches Laurent and Cecile Landi are from. In her Facebook Watch documentary, Simone vs. Herself, a producer hypothetically asked her before the postponement of the 2020 Games was announced what she’d do if they were pushed back or canceled. “If they cancel the Olympics, I’m quitting” she said. “I can’t do this any longer.”
She’s heading to Tokyo, and if anyone could maintain international dominance for another Olympic cycle that will conclude when she’s 27 years old, it’s Simone Biles. But I knew I couldn’t live with the risk of never getting to see her compete in person.
I rounded up three like-minded friends, bought front-row tickets directly behind the vault runway and right next to the balance beam (we could not afford the prime seats in front of floor exercise or in the uneven bars corner), and hopped in the car to St. Louis, driving five hours through three different thunderstorms along I-55.
When we took our spots, Biles was laughing at the end of the vault runway with her teammate Jordan Chiles, just a few feet in front of us. Three young girls behind me yelled, “Jordan! Jordan! Jordan!” and Chiles looked over and waved at them, and also at me, since I’d instinctively joined in on their chant and was waving like a tiny fan girl.
I sat next to Lillian Urbaniak, a freckly 8-year-old, who was also a first-time live gymnastics viewer. She wore a green tie-dye headband and pink and yellow tie-dye sandals, and was celebrating her birthday on this final day of the Olympic trials. She’d traveled an hour from Western Illinois with her mom, Kelly, to see her favorite gymnast Simone Biles and her second-favorite gymnast MyKayla Skinner. Lillian told me she’s been doing gymnastics for five years and she can now do a back handspring.
Lillian’s swinging feet couldn’t reach the ground and her head barely rose above the railing in front of us, but she was still visibly stunned by the view from our seats. Lillian’s dad bought the tickets and neither she nor her mom knew they’d be sitting in the front row. “We just kept walking down and down and down,” Kelly said.
“How much did these tickets cost?” Lillian asked, wide-eyed.
From where we sat, we could see Biles’s rhinestone-encrusted GOAT slides tucked underneath her chair. We could feel through the ground the springy power of the vault run, see the heels dangling precariously off the beam, and hear the satisfying smoosh of a stuck landing.
Before her first vault, Skinner turned around to face our section and then lifted her arms in the air, asking us all to cheer and get loud for her. We did.
Simone Biles didn’t have her best night, but there was something special about seeing a less-than-perfect version of the greatest ever. After Biles saved a bad wobble at the start of her uneven bars routine, the cameras caught her saying, “I want to die,” as she walked off the platform. Then she came off the beam after her aerial, stunning the crowd into silence. I think I actually stopped breathing, but then she popped back up on the beam so quickly that I wondered if I had hallucinated the entire error.
Biles didn’t end her beam routine with her signature Biles dismount (one of four moves named after her), opting for a simpler dismount. She walked off the beam platform in a huff, arms swinging and head down. She hadn’t come off the beam all week, and told reporters afterwards that she was getting inside her own head.
“I feel like there’s a lot of expectations that I put on myself and that everybody puts on me as well, so it’s kind of hard to figure out,” she told reporters. “But going in here, it just kind of sucks because I’m getting older. It’s getting a little bit scarier. I haven’t fallen on beam all week and I get up there and do that. That’s annoying and it’s that kind of doubt. Can I repeat day one? And then you get a little bit tired and the doubts start creeping in.”
Biles’s total honesty in displaying and discussing her emotions is one of my favorite things about her. In her comeback since a year off after Rio, she’s made no effort to hide her true feelings. She’s unabashedly worn a goat emblem on her leotards or slide, while simultaneously complaining and eye-rolling about a less-than-perfect performance, and admitting when self-doubt creeps in.
As her coach Laurent Landi taped up her ankles after her beam routine, Biles sat for several minutes and brushed away tears. Landi patted her legs and offered reassurances. I found myself staring at her instead of the gymnasts actually competing, fascinated by the fact that even Biles is sometimes in need of a little pep talk.
Watching her emotions, my friends and I whispered to ourselves, wondering if she would still do the “Biles II,” her triple-twisting double-tuck on floor. We wanted to see it live so badly.
Minutes after wiping back her tears, Biles took the floor and opened her routine with the moment we’d been waiting for. She threw the “Biles II” like it was nothing, floating higher and higher with each rotation. It sounds like a tired cliche, but this really is something you just have to see in person. On Simone vs. Herself, Biles said she thinks of the move as a sound, a whoosh! After witnessing it live, my friend Brooke said, “It looks like she’s glitching!”
Biles had too much energy on that first pass, she stepped out of bounds on the Biles II and again on her next pass, which featured the first floor move named after her, the Biles, a double layout with a half-twist. She’s only 4-foot-9, but her power and force makes the 39 feet by 39 feet floor look way too small.
When Biles walked off the floor, the entire crowd of 20,815 people stood up and cheered. A couple of uncharacteristic performances didn’t matter to the largest crowd in USAG team trials history, now sending her off on our feet. Her fellow gymnasts and coaches waved their arms to urge fans, knowing it might well be the last time Biles competes in the United States.
Biles said she wasn’t thinking about finality when she competed Sunday, but instead felt emotional the entire weekend because of everything that has happened over the last few years. Biles went public in 2018 to say that she was sexually abused by former team doctor Larry Nassar, and she is now the only publicly known victim of his sexual abuse who is still actively competing for USAG.
“I think just everything I have been through with USAG and then coming back into the sport and trying to find the love again and going out there and being Simone,” she said. “It has been a long journey from 2016 to now.”
Biles and Sunisa Lee finished 1-2 in the all-around, and earned their berths on the Olympic team. Then the selection committee took 30 minutes to deliberate on the final two members before making a the mostly uncontroversial choice of third- and fourth-place finishers, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum.
USAG team coordinator Tom Forster told reporters that he received a text from a former gymnast saying that for the first time she felt like the right team was chosen, and that there were no politics involved. “That I feel really proud about,” Forster said.
Biles was in a better mood afterward, poking fun at herself when she met with the press while the piles of red, white, and blue streamers were being cleared off the floor mat. “Simone night one kicked Simone night two’s butt,” she said.
Even on a rare off-night, Simone Night Two still stunned this first-time live gymnastics viewer. I walked out of the arena knowing exactly how my 8-year-old pal Lillian felt.