By Blythe Lawrence
As expected, Simone Biles’s biggest competition during Saturday’s qualification round at the World Gymnastics Championships in Doha came directly from herself. From her kidneys, specifically.
A kidney stone Biles has dubbed “The Doha Pearl” didn’t derail the four-time Olympic gold medalist’s highly anticipated return to the world stage after a nearly yearlong hiatus, nor did it keep Biles and her teammates from doing what everyone expected of them: putting on a four- event tour de force to take the lead at the halfway point of women’s qualifications.
After the first of two days of preliminary competition at the Aspire Dome, Biles leads the women’s all-around with 60.965 points, exactly four- and- a- half points ahead of 2017 World all-around champion Morgan Hurd. On the strength of performances by Biles, Hurd and World’s first-timers Kara Eaker, Grace McCallum and Riley McCusker, the U.S. scored 174.429 points, ahead of Japan by more than a dozen points. Russia and China, both expected to contend for the podium, compete Sunday.
The kidney stone and a trip to the emergency room that lasted well past midnight Friday didn’t stop Biles from performing full difficulty routines on all four events Saturday, and posting the top scores on all but uneven bars, where she trailed Belgium’s Nina Derwael by a mere two- tenths of a point. Though it won’t be official until the preliminaries end Sunday night, Biles is very likely to qualify for all four individual event finals, a rarity in gymnastics. She herself was the last person to do it, back in 2013.
But for one long second at the beginning, it appeared the stone might have an adverse affect on Biles’s performance. Early in her routine on the Americans’ first event, uneven bars, the 21-year-old overbalanced a handstand and nearly fell.
“I definitely thought I was going to come off that bar,” Biles said. “It was, ‘Ooh my God lord have mercy help me right now’!” The rest of the routine, including her difficult new double twisting double tuck dismount, was masterful. On beam and floor, she simply dazzled, every bit the Simone many call the greatest of all time.
She saved the best for last on vault, where she landed her newest creation, a roundoff, half on, front layout double full twist vault for the first time in international competition, meaning the skill will be named The Biles in her honor. Though she had hinted that she might save the vault for event finals, Biles landed it with ease, then broke into a huge grin. She scored 15.966 for the effort, by far the highest mark of the day.
All that with a malady that leaves most people tucked up in the fetal position. Biles just skipped morning practice and called it good.
“She’s Simone. You’d expect the same out of a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods. That’s who she is in our sport, and she showed it,” said High-performance Coordinator Tom Forster, who confessed that the prospect of Biles not competing due to appendicitis made him sick to his stomach himself for a good four hours Friday night.
Back pain and stomachaches she wrote off as stress have hampered Biles for the past two weeks, but the 21-year-old didn’t think anything of it before Friday night when she told her mom Nellie that she wasn’t feeling well.
“Maybe I need to go to the hospital,” Biles mused aloud, meaning it as a joke. Nellie Biles, a trained nurse who isn’t used to hearing that kind of complaint from her daughter, took the idea seriously and packed Biles off to the ER. After tests ruled out appendicitis, Biles was told she had a kidney stone and might need to spend the night in the hospital.
“Yeah, I discharged myself,” Biles said Saturday. “I’m like, sorry, but I have to compete so I’m leaving, but thanks for letting me know I have a kidney stone. I’ll deal with the pain later.” That’s likely for the next week, as she attempts to break some golden records in Doha, including becoming the first woman to win four World all-around titles. Another goal is to get a medal on bars, the event long cast as her nemesis.
Biles credits adrenaline and her teammates with pulling her through. “It hurts to stand for awhile and do some of the movements, but I think adrenaline definitely helped out there,” Biles said. “Without my teammates, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to go out there and do the routines I did tonight, so I’m really excited and happy I did it, because I’m here for the team.”
Behind Biles, the U.S. women showed the strength and grace that has lifted them to every World team title since 2011. The bespectacled Hurd was unflappable in the leadoff position and in good stead to make finals on uneven bars and floor, where she’s currently fourth and third, respectively.
“I like going first,” Hurd said with a laugh. “It actually helps me because I wait a little less time so I feel like I have less chance of getting more anxious.”
Eaker, who matches Biles in difficulty on balance beam and brings an extra component of elegance, nailed her set and is currently second on that event. “I definitely had some things that I could have done better, but it’s definitely getting closer, closer to my dream routine,” she said.
McCallum, the only U.S. gymnast besides Biles to compete two vaults, is currently fifth. Performing on the global stage agreed with her. “I wasn’t that nervous,” she said. “I tried to stay calm and just positive and pumped up and tried not to think ahead, and it went really fast!”
McCusker, who suffered a fall off balance beam, rebounded gracefully on floor and vault. “I was a little frazzled, but by floor I was good,” she said. “I love my floor routine. I feel like it’s definitely choreographed for me, built for me. I love performing it.”
Everyone goes into Tuesday’s team finals with something to be proud of, Biles added.
“I think everyone had a standout event tonight, and that’s really exciting, especially going into team finals,” Biles said. “We have a lot of good gymnastics to bring, so we’re excited about that.”