There is not a lot you can accomplish in 1.18 seconds. At a push you could write the first couple of letters of your name or more satisfyingly scratch an itch. Or if you are Simone Biles, you can use that time to become the first female gymnast to pull off a triple-double in competition.
To recap, a triple-double is a triple twist combined simultaneously with a double flip. This was done in the floor competition so no springboard. All the speed and height - it is estimated she reached 10ft in the air - had to be generated herself. Had Isaac Newton been in the crowd at the United States Championships on Sunday night he might have drawn a very different conclusion of how gravity works. For a sport that rarely gets exposure outside the Olympic Games, footage of Biles’ feat has gained millions of views on social media.
In real time, Biles is just a whirling blur. Even with the benefit of super slow motion, it is still difficult to detect each rotation. Whole articles have been devoted to breaking down the physics of Biles’ jump, notably an excellent synopsis on wired.com, and even then your jaw drops deeper with appreciation. Any conspiracy theorists who believe superhero mutants live among us should present this as exhibit A of their argument.
For the historical context, the double-double was first accomplished by a female gymnast in 1988 and is ranked 0.8 in difficulty. The triple-double is provisionally ranked 1.0, the highest ever difficulty value assigned to a skill and US Gymnastics argues that does not go far enough. Not that it is completely unprecedented. A handful of men have pulled it off in competition, including Japan’s Kenzo Shirai, but qualified judges believe Biles’ execution was more sound.
If that was not astounding enough, Biles also became the first gymnast to complete a double-twisting, double somersault off the balance beam at the same competition. Needless to say she went on to win a record equalling sixth all-round gymnastics title. If she repeats these skills at the forthcoming World Championships in Stuttgart then they will be named after her in the official Code of Points, which would be her third and fourth skills after the double layout with a half-twist on the floor and a yurchenko half-on, two twists off on the vault.
Yet for all her technical, physical and geometrical wizardry, the most impressive part of Biles’ accomplishment is her mental strength in competing for an organisation that betrayed her so reprehensibly. Last year, Biles came forward as one of the many athletes sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics physician. A Congressional report released in late July after an 18-month investigation stated that several institutions, including USA Gymnastics, knew that Nassar was abusing gymnasts and did not intervene.
Speaking last week, Biles made clear she continues to hold USA Gymnastics accountable. “It’s hard coming here for an organisation having had them fail us so many times,” Biles said. “And we had one goal and we’ve done everything that they’ve asked us for, even when we didn’t want to and they couldn’t do one damn job. You had one job. You literally had one job and you didn’t protect us.”
Going into the final night of competition on Sunday, Biles could still have easily won the title without going for the triple-double. That she did it anyway is testament to how much fortitude is contained in that tiny 4ft 8in frame.
At the Tokyo Olympics next year, Biles will be seeking to become the first woman in 50 years to retain her all-round title. Moreover she will be looking to redefine the limits of perfection and inherit Usain Bolt’s mantle as the face of the Olympics.