RIO DE JANEIRO -- Simone Biles already owned three consecutive world titles and four U.S. national championships before she arrived in Rio. At 19, she already has a floor exercise move named after her that no other women in the world can throw, the surest sign in gymnastics that you're a sport-changing force. Former Olympic all-around champion Mary Lou Retton long ago called Biles the greatest female gymnast she has ever seen. Others have echoed the talk. But as Biles' coach Aimee Boorman noted Thursday, "A lot of people said she wouldn't be the greatest of all time until she wins the Olympic all-around."
"So-o-o-o," Boorman laughed and held out a hand, "Mic drop!"
Biles was once again at her unparalleled best at the Rio Summer Games on Thursday with a winning score of 62.198 that left her a gaping two points clear of fellow American Aly Raisman, and nearly four points ahead of bronze medalist Aliya Mustafina of Russia.
She finally, officially, conclusively, irreversibly placed herself in the conversation with Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt as one of the top five or six most wondrous athletes in the world right now. There's no need to limit it to only who's in attendance at these Rio Summer Games.
Here's the other thing: Even though it was a victory that had been long predicted -- "For, like, years," Raisman, a two-time Olympian, said with a laugh -- the story of how Biles arrived at this moment and delivered on it is hardly routine or stripped of wonder.
Her win felt drama-free or boring only if you don't like to watch a virtuoso performer stretching ideas of what's possible, or see a great creation story come to fruition.
"I think if you ask any of the all-arounders that won the gold medal," Biles said, "it's everything they dreamed of since they were a little girl. But I think mine is a little different."
Biles was raised in suburban Houston by her paternal grandfather and his second wife after her own mother struggled with substance abuse problems in Cleveland. To see the amplitude and mastery of the skills she throws now -- the vaults that are so high flying the crowds in Rio have literally gasped at the enormous difference between her and the other gymnasts -- it's easy to forget it wasn't always this way.
Some girl gymnasts are on the Olympic track from the time they're 9 or 10, but, said Biles, "I didn't really start training for my Olympic dream seriously until just a few years ago." Boorman, a loose, joke-cracking woman who has coached Simone since she was six, has often told the story of how she actually pulled Biles from her first senior-level meet in 2013 after Biles barely held on during her beam routine, fell to her knees during the floor exercise and flew off the uneven bars.
Even then, Biles was an obvious talent. She already had some amazing strength and power packed into her 4-foot-9 frame. But Thursday, after being told that national team coordinator Martha Karolyi had called her the best gymnast she has ever seen -- an enormous compliment considering Karolyi and her husband Bela also coached Retton here, and the great Nadia Comenci in Romania -- Biles laughed and said, "I hadn't heard she said that" -- then preferred to dwell more on an exchange she and Karoyli shared after she won Thursday.
"It's very amazing, because if you had asked her five years ago, 'Can you bring this girl onto the national team?' ... she'd have probably said no" Biles said, "because she just told me in the corner over there, 'For a couple years, I didn't even know about you because you were just this bouncy thing! And now you're standing here and you're the Olympic champion.'
"A lot has changed."
There were really only two moments of real drama as the competition unspooled Thursday, and one of them was really just the luck of the draw. Biles actually trailed Mustafina by a few tenths of a point after two rotations because they started on vault, where the gap between her and the Russian isn't that enormous, and then moved onto bars, where Mustafina, a former world champion, actually grabbed a three-tenths of a point lead as they moved to the most nerve-wracking apparatus, the beam.
If Biles was ever going to crack, it was going to be here. Back at the U.S. Olympic trials in July, she fell off the beam twice and drolly joked later, "Beam 2, Simone 0." Even Boorman laugh and admitted as she watched Biles take her last few warm-up passes before her routine, she was thinking to herself, " 'JUST DON'T FALL.' I didn't like the rankings at that point. No."
But Biles slammed down every one of her difficult tumbling passes. She nailed the dismount. After that, all that was left was the floor exercise, which had to feel like a walk in the park after what she'd just been through. As it happened, Raisman and Biles were the last two gymnasts to go. They knew the last time the U.S. had two gymnasts on the podium in the event was in 2008, when Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson won gold and silver. Biles said, "This morning when I woke up I walked into Aly's room and said, 'I have a very good feeling about today.' And she said, 'Me too.' "
Raisman has rarely looked better or more radiant during a routine. She said she could see her longtime coach, Mihai Brestyan, pumping his fists with each tumbling pass she nailed, knowing she almost had the silver locked up. When it was over, she dissolved into tears as she walked off, knowing she'd gone four-for-four in her routines and, in her words, won "redemption" for the mistakes that cost her dearly in the 2012 all-round medal race in London.
Waiting for Raisman just off the mat was Biles, who still had to do her routine and laughed later, along with Boorman, about their indecision about what to do in that moment.
Said Boorman: "When Aly finished and she had her moment and everything, I went at Simone and I said, "OK! We can't look at her or we're both going to start crying.' And she said, I know -- but I gotta go hug her.' "
Biles said, "What was going through my mind was 'Aly was going to cry, and then, oh my gosh, she's going to make ME cry.' And that's not going to be good."
But like everything else, Biles navigated it. Her score of 15.933 was the highest anyone posted on the night. She flew so high on a couple of her tumbling passes, the crowd gasped, same as it had at her vaults. Karolyi later gushed that it was like watching "a force of nature."
Biles herself was asked by reporters later if she felt pressure knowing she was trailing going to the beam and she flatly said, "No." Well why not? "I don't know," she said, "I deal with pressure very well." A third reporter, still not satisfied, asked Biles now if she feels pressure in anything she does in life, and Biles, in that typically incisive, no-bull way of hers, said, "All I have is gymnastics. So I'll have to think about it."
Biles was later asked if she agrees she's the best female gymnast there has ever been, and she just shrugged.
"I'm not exactly sure how to answer that," she said. "I didn't even know my all-around [title was won] till, like, five minutes ago."
It was typical Biles. Again. But maybe there's a lesson in that. For her, the surest way to achieve greatness is never taking greatness for granted.