STUTTGART, Germany - Already hailed as the greatest gymnast in history, Simone Biles on Saturday at the world championships added another medal and historic distinction to her résumé.
With a dazzling display of power and precision, Biles, 22, a five-time world all-around champion and reigning Olympic all-around champion, outclassed the field to win gold on the vault. With it, she tied the record of 23 world championship medals earned by Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus in the 1990s.
Biles’ assault on her sport’s history book isn’t over. In what she has indicated will be her final world championships, Biles will close the competition Sunday with a chance to eclipse Scherbo by earning a 24th and possibly 25th medal when she contests the balance beam and floor exercise finals.
“It’s pretty crazy,” said Biles, who claimed her second world championship gold on vault with a commanding score of 15.399 points, well ahead of fellow American and silver-medalist Jade Carey.
Biles is all but assured of adding to her tally Sunday, as the reigning world champion on floor and reigning world bronze-medalist on beam.
That said, she’s not doing the math. Nor is she mentally fast-forwarding 24 hours, to the moment when she takes her final bow at the world championships.
“I feel like every time I go into it, I never think, ‘This could be the last,’ “ Biles said. “I think, ‘Cherish the moment, go out there and compete with pride and have fun.’ “
She did just that Saturday, the first of two days of individual event finals, wearing a glittering red leotard and signature, sparkly eye makeup that underscored her status as star of the gym floor.
When Biles wasn’t competing on vault and uneven bars, on which she finished fifth, she was cheering on her American teammates, Carey and Sunisa Lee, 16.
The trio combined for a podium sweep Saturday with performances that testified to the power, depth and versatility of the U.S. women roughly nine months ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Carey took silver on vault by performing the same two exceedingly difficult vaults as Biles, the Cheng and Amanar, but having a few more hiccups on execution.
Lee, the youngest member of the five-woman U.S. squad that won team gold earlier this week, was equally thrilled with her bronze on uneven bars. The bars are her strength, and she was eager to rebound after an uncharacteristic fall during Thursday’s all-around competition and a rocky practice on Friday.
She credited Biles with helping her regain focus and confidence.
“Simone has so much experience, and she is very inspiring,” Lee said. “She has helped me get through this competition very well. She has given me a lot of good pep talks and been there through it all.”
On vault, Biles faces the unique challenge of having too much power - so much, she explained, that once she launches herself skyward from the springboard, it’s tricky to come back down to earth in a controlled manner.
In the vault finals, gymnasts perform two vaults in succession, with their two scores averaged for their final score.
Biles took a small hop backward upon landing her first vault, a Cheng, incurring a minor deduction. On her second vault, the Amanar, she was a study in highflying control, and the joy was evident on her face.
“In practice, I’m flying out of it; I’m always overshooting it,” Biles said afterward. “So I’m really proud to have a calm, peaceful landing.”
Carey, who competed last among the field of eight qualifiers, was forced to hop out of bounds to steady herself upon landing the Amanar, scaring herself in the process. Still, the judges’ deductions weren’t severe enough to knock her out of silver, which she claimed with 14.883 points.
The achievement, Carey said afterward, was even more gratifying than the silver she claimed on vault at the 2017 world championships.
“This one feels a little more special to me just because I had to miss out last year and then I also got hurt last year,” she said, “so vault was a little bit hard for me to get back, so I’m happy to was able to do it.”
On uneven bars, Lee gave judges little to quibble about. But with five competitors yet to go, she had the unenviable task of waiting to see if more seasoned gymnasts would bump her from medal contention.
Her score of 14.800 held up to deliver her dream of winning a medal of any color in her first world championships. And she was beyond proud to share the podium with gold-medalist Nina Derwael of Belgium (15.233) and silver-medalist Rebecca Downie of Belgium (15.000).
“I wanted to medal so badly,” Lee said. “I knew that the best bar workers were after me. It was really scary to watch the scores go up.”
The competition concludes Sunday, when Biles returns to compete on balance beam and floor. She’ll be joined by fellow Americans Kara Eaker, who was added to the field of eight as the first alternate for Canada’s Ellie Black, who withdrew after injuring an ankle upon landed her vault in the all-around competition; Less, who will contest uneven bars, which is her specialty; and Sam Mikulak, who proved himself the man to beat on horizontal bar by posting the top score on the apparatus during the men’s all-around.