By WILL GRAVES
HARTFORD, Conn. — When Martha Karolyi watches Simone Biles bound across the floor like gravity is an option not a requirement, the U.S. women’s gymnastics national team coordinator sees a diamond still in need of a bit of polish.
Very little, apparently.
The seemingly weightless 16-year-old with the physics challenging hops soared in the women’s national all-around finals on Saturday night, leading all the way to edge Olympic gold medalist and favorite Kyla Ross in the first major meet since the London Games.
Cruising around the XL Center, seemingly oblivious to the mounting pressure, Biles never trailed while putting together a two-day score of 120.450, just ahead of 120.250 posted by Ross.
It was a command performance by the leader in the next wave of Americans hoping to dominate the podium over the next three years. And it was done by a 4-foot-8 livewire who endured a very public meltdown in a qualifying meet at Chicago last month.
It seemed a distant memory as Biles powered through balance beam, floor exercise and vault. Her only misstep coming on uneven bars, her final event. She entered the last rotation with a
1.250 lead over Ross. It nearly vanished when she lost momentum and stalled.
Jumping off and starting over, however, was hardly an option.
“I kind of freaked out when I did it,” Biles said. “I was not letting go with the bar.”
Good thing. Ross responded with a nearly flawless beam set. Only a bobble that left the youngest member of the gold-medal winning “Fierce Five” flailing her arms to stay on kept Ross from standing atop the podium.
Ross called the result “disappointing” but was hardly devastated. She remains a lock to make the world championship team when it heads to Belgium in six weeks.
“That’s really what we’re pointing toward,” she said. “I was really happy with my routines. It was a good night.”
Just not a great one.
Brenna Dowell was third, followed by Peyton Ernst and Maggie Nichols. All three, like the rest of the field, were well behind the world-class efforts put together by Biles and Ross.
Two-time Olympic medalist McKayla Maroney easily won her second national title in vault and roared to victory on floor exercise.
Thrust into Olympic infamy after glowering on the medal stand after a slip on her final vault in London cost her the gold medal, she couldn’t help herself when asked how to assess what remains thriving career.
“I was impressed,” she said with a laugh.
Not only with herself, but Biles too.
One of the top juniors in the world last year, Biles’ transition to the sport’s highest level hit a major speed bump at a qualifying meet last month.
Stumbling through three miserable routines — and falling on each one — she was scratched from the competition to nurse an ankle injury and save her sapping her confidence altogether.
A pep talk Karolyi and a well-placed shoulder by Ross helped Biles settle down. Ross told her to try to tune out the crowd and the stakes, something Biles said was easy considering she admits to blocking out her parents “all the time.”
The roar — not to mention the spotlight — is sure to grow louder now that she’s considered a serious all-around threat at worlds.
“It was encouraging to see her adjust and deal with the stakes,” Karolyi said.
Biles never faltered during a duel between the top two active American gymnasts that offered a marked contrast in styles.
Ross is all grace and fluid lines. There is no wasted movement in her routines. Every trick carefully is crafted to accentuate the budding maturity in the youngest member of the “Fierce Five.” After watching Ross put together a near flawless set on uneven bars during the preliminary round, good friend Maroney joked she nearly “passed out” watching Ross glide from bar to bar as if she was doing a ballet six feet off the ground.
Biles is the polar opposite. The kid from aptly named Spring, Texas, is all muscle and mayhem. At times all that pent-up energy can get the best of her.
There’s ample evidence she’s learning to harness it.
Biles began her march to the title on beam. She ripped through her set, barely wobbling on the 4-inch wooden plank perched 4-feet off the ground. The arena echoed with each thud as she went through a difficult series of jumps and twists. She nailed the dismount and bounded back to her coaches, the confidence boost she needed to turn what appeared to be a showdown with Ross into a coronation.
Ultimately, Ross didn’t lose the meet. Biles went out and won it.
Her floor exercise is 75 seconds of ferocity. At times she looks almost impatient as she zips through the choreography, eager to get back to the tumbling runs that make her seem as if she’s a marionette with strings attached to the ceiling.
“I don’t know where I get it from,” she said. “I just know that I can do it.”
The mantle of Next Great American gymnast firmly in her grasp, Biles will have company from the old guard — well, as much as a 17-year-old can be considered old — in Belgium. Ross will come along, as will Maroney. One of the greatest vaulters in the history of the sport, put on yet another show to bookend the national title she won two years ago.
The crowd roared when Maroney nailed her signature Amanar — the hardest vault being done in competition — and posted a 16.0, the highest score of the meet. Just as important was the way she deftly handled her second vault, the one that cost her gold in London.
While admitting it remains a work in progress, she pulled it off with ease. Had she done it a year ago, she might not have the itch to return. Instead, the fire to keep going is only fanned after one of the best meets of her career.
“I can’t wait to get to worlds,” she said. “Here we come.”