Simone Biles – vault gold medalist
© John Cheng

By Blythe Lawrence

STUTTGART — And just like that, there were 23.

Simone Biles defended her World title on vault at the World Gymnastics Championships Saturday, her latest bit of virtuosity giving her World title number 17 and her 23rd overall medal, equaling the all-time record for World medals by any gymnast male or female.

With it, Biles ties Vitaly Scherbo of the USSR/Belarus for the most World medals, a mark she’s likely to surpass in Sunday’s beam and floor finals, both events where she has medaled consistently at every World Championships dating back to 2013.

So what does it feel like for the gymnast many already consider the greatest ever to back it up with hard data? Biles, who says she doesn’t pay much attention to medal counts and records, was nonchalant. “I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully, as though considering whether she’d been fundamentally changed by the achievement. “What is it supposed to feel like?”

Biles’s wasn’t the only sterling performance from the American women Saturday. Jade Carey and Sunisa Lee earned silver on vault and bronze on uneven bars, respectively, giving the U.S. a rainbow of medals on the first of two days of individual apparatus finals.

In a vault final that showed how the rest of the world is approaching the jaw-dropping difficulty that sets Biles apart, the 22-year-old Texan proved that she remains a step ahead, nailing a Cheng and an Amanar to take her second consecutive World vault title with 15.399 points, the average of the 15.333 she received for the Cheng and 15.466 — the single highest score in the entire women’s competition — for a near-perfect Amanar.

Her flawless execution, combined with that supreme difficulty, all but assured Biles the title, even with six competitors still to perform. And while records are nice, Biles was more pleased with how she performed the gymnastics, particularly the dart-like landing of her Amanar, which she struggled with leading up to the competition.

”In practice I was like, flying out of it,” Biles said. “I was like, there’s no way I’m going to land this fine, because I’m always overshooting it, so I was just really proud to have a calm, peaceful landing.”

A lack of training time on her namesake vault, a half twist more than the Cheng, caused Biles and coach Laurent Landi to opt against competing it, but Biles threw all the difficulty she had into her uneven bars routine, where she finished fifth despite turning in an excellent exercise capped with a drilled double-twisting double tuck dismount.

“This one I kind of pulled in on the bar, so it wasn’t the best one, so I’m happy I landed it on my feet,” Biles said. “I’m excited with the performances I put out today. Obviously, I didn’t medal on bars, but there was a slim chance I was going to. I just wanted to hit the routine and I did. I feel like I’m getting a little bit stronger on bars. I’m definitely more confident, so when I make a final, I feel really confident going into it, and I never thought in a million years I’d feel this confident on bars, so I think I’m pretty proud of that achievement already.”

Despite the high level and quality of the vault finalists, the only gymnast to do attempt the same total difficulty as Biles was Carey, whose 14.883 average for a Cheng and Amanar of her own earned the 19-year-old her second World silver on vault.

“I definitely scared myself,” said Carey, who took a large step to the side on the landing of her Amanar. “I knew as soon as I blocked that I was just a little off, so I was really just trying to get to my feet.” Carey was also second on vault at her rookie Worlds in Montreal two years ago, but much has happened since then, including a knee injury that took her awhile to get back from.

“This one feels a little more special to me, just because I had to miss out last year and I also got hurt last year,” she noted. “I just try to focus on what I need to do.”

After falling from the uneven bars during the all-around final, 16-year-old Lee was thrilled to deliver a beautiful performance in the final to earn her first individual World medal with 14.800. “It was definitely scary, because I wanted to medal so badly,” Lee said, noting that her bars practice yesterday hadn’t gone as well as she would have liked. “So to hit feels really good, and to be on the podium absolutely amazing.”

Belgium’s Nina Derwael collected her second consecutive World title on bars with a massive 15.233 points, while Great Britain’s Rebecca Downie won silver with 15.0.

The U.S. women have four more chances to collect medals in Sunday’s event finals on balance beam and floor exercise. Biles and Kara Eaker will compete on balance beam, while Biles and Lee have made the final on floor. There again, Biles is concentrating on the performances, not the results.

“I just keep a clear head going into all of the finals and try to stay focused on what’s to come. I try to think about one at a time,” she said. “I never think oh, this could be my last championship. I cherish the moment, go out there and compete with pride.”