Opinion: Simone Biles’ new vault move pushes boundaries and motivates her for Olympics

SPRING, Texas — Simone Biles is never quite sure how many world championships medals she has. Ask how many skills are named after her, and she has to think about it.

So more titles and accolades were not what brought the four-time Olympic champion back to gymnastics after a layoff following the Rio Games.

“I had already reached, and passed, all my expectations in the sport already. So going back to, in 2018, worlds, and in 2019, I was kind of like, 'OK, I don’t really have anything to lose at this point. I’ve already stamped my status on the sport,' " Biles said told USA TODAY Sports last month.

“But I’m going to push myself to see how much further I can go in the sport.”

Biles returns to competition Saturday for the first time since the 2019 world championships, where she became the most-decorated gymnast, male or female, with 25 medals.

Simone Biles returns to competition Saturday for the first time since the 2019 world championships. (Photo: Thomas Kienzle, AFP/Getty Images)

Though the Tokyo Olympics had to be pushed back, Biles’ desire to push herself has not changed. She continues to do the groundbreaking skills she debuted in 2019 – a triple-twisting, double somersault on floor exercise and a double-twisting, double somersault dismount off balance beam.

She has also added a new vault, a Yurchenko double pike, that she could do for the first time at the U.S. Classic.

“We’re really excited about it,” Biles said. “It’s really consistent.”

Simone Biles could be the first woman to attempt a Yurchenko double pike in competition, say her coaches. Only men have landed it. “It’s very, very challenging… people can get hurt… it’s a very dangerous vault,” says Biles’ coach, Laurent Landi. https://t.co/ovlrulJYIOpic.twitter.com/qQTxKeUuNk

Because no other woman has done the vault in competition, Biles doesn’t know how much it will be worth in the scoring system. If she competes it at the Classic or next month’s national championships or Olympic trials, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) will assign it a value before Tokyo.

Every gymnastics skill is assigned a letter that corresponds to a numeric value; an “A” skill is worth a tenth of a point, and every letter that follows is worth an additional tenth. The values of the skills are then totaled together for the difficulty score, or start value, of a routine.

Now, the FIG doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to fairly assessing Biles’ otherworldliness. It undervalued her double-double beam dismount, deeming it an H skill rather than the I or J it should have been, because it didn’t want other gymnasts ibreaking their necks trying to duplicate the move.

Which makes no sense. And makes a mockery of the whole reason gymnastics went to the open-ended Code of Points in the first place.

NANCY ARMMOUR: Simone Biles sets the standard in gymnastics and maybe any sport you can name

“You wanted people to be unique and different and do crazy things. Obviously safety is a matter and a factor in that, but now they're just like, 'Wait! Wait! Wait! We wanted an open-ended code, but we didn't want to do THAT,' " Biles said. “Or we didn't want Simone to do it, or we didn't want the USA to do it.”

Laurent Landi, who coaches Biles along with his wife Cecile, said he doesn’t think the FIG is necessarily trying to single Biles out. But it does want there to be a more parity, which winds up being the same thing.

“It’s not about fair or not fair. The sport is the sport,” Landi said. “Somebody who has high potential and abilities, you need to give them the edge compared to somebody else. I thought that was the main reason of the open Code of Points, to really separate the good from the greats. And they actually tried to go back, to not separating, to put them in the same basket.

“(The FIG is saying) 'No, no, you’re too good.' But if you tell them that as a coach, then they stop working,” Landi added. “This is why we are trying to challenge her, even though it’s very risky, it’s very challenging, it’s very dangerous. I think it’s the only way she can motivate herself.”

NANCY ARMOUR: Simone Biles makes two crazy-difficult skills look so easy. They are not

Biles hasn’t lost a meet since the summer of 2013. While teammates and competitors joke about a “non-Simone division,’ it’s not really a joke. Not since 2014 has anyone come within a half-point of her, a stunning stat in a sport often decided by tenths or hundredths of points.

Truth be told, Biles could have come back, done the same routines she did in 2016, and still won. But what would be the point of that?

Testing the limits of her abilities, even more than the titles, is what puts Biles in that rarefied category alongside Michael Phelps, Serena Williams and Tom Brady.

“She’s still improving,” Laurent Landi said, “and she’s still finding it challenging to make those different connections on different skills that she’s trying to achieve every day.”  

Biles has always played around with skills long before she competes them – another reason the FIG’s “safety” excuse doesn’t hold water. Cecile Landi says they’ll often start by treating a new skill as a drill, a means to finesse another skill she was already doing.

The double-double, for example, began as a way to get additional height on her existing dismount.

“She always says at first, 'OK, but no. I’ll do it, but I don’t think I’ll compete it.’ Then little by little, she realizes that she’s actually capable of doing it well,” Cecile Landi said. “And when she believes in herself, there’s no stopping her.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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