Simone Biles’ greatest move had nothing to do with winning her ninth US title | Opinion

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Simone Biles' greatest move had nothing to do with winning her ninth US title | Opinion

FORT WORTH, Texas — The best thing Simone Biles did on her way to her ninth U.S. title won’t show up in the scoresheet.

Biles hasn’t lost an all-around gymnastics meet in more than a decade, and that streak was never in jeopardy at U.S. nationals. She had a commanding lead after the first night, and after breezing through her routine on a balance beam that tripped up many other competitors, it was clear it was going to be more of the same Sunday night.

But at 27, Biles has a perspective she wouldn’t have — couldn’t have — had as a younger gymnast. So when she noticed Suni Lee, whose career was nearly derailed last year by a kidney ailment, have a scary turn on vault, Biles did something not often seen in the sport.

Biles went to find Lee, who had gone backstage to try and compose herself, and ask if she was OK. She asked if Lee had gotten lost in the air, as Biles had at the Tokyo Olympics. When Lee said no, Biles told her to take a deep breath and trust in her gymnastics. Everything, Biles said, was going to be all right.

“She just helped boost me up and get my confidence back up because, at that point, I was kind of like thinking that this was over,” Lee said. “It was really nice having her in my corner. It just felt so good because I knew I was having a hard time, and she was just there.”

Simone Biles won her ninth U.S. title, extending her own record. But her most memorable moment had nothing to do with competing and everything to do with her competition.

Though Biles’ World Champions Centre teammates were beginning their rotation on floor exercise, Biles stayed with Lee, offering her more words of encouragement before she went up on bars. As Lee climbed up on the podium, still looking apprehensive, Biles stayed close by, cheering her on from the floor. Her shouts of “C’mon! C’mon!” could be heard as Lee did her routine — a near-flawless one, mind you — and she clapped enthusiastically when Lee landed her dismount.

With Lee once again on sure footing, Biles headed back to floor, where she would soon have to compete herself. As she trotted off, Jess Graba, Lee’s longtime coach, reached out to give the four-time Olympic champion a pat of gratitude on the back.

“That’s what a good leader does,” Graba said. “She saw what was going on. First event, that can throw you off. (She said), `Just stay in your game.'”

This was Lee’s first time doing the all-around since she had to cut short her final season at Auburn because of the kidney ailment, and the months in between have been filled with dark moments and doubts about whether she’d be able to do gymnastics again. Of course she’d be thrown by what happened on vault, where she stubbed her toe on the runway and had to decide in the air to water down her vault or risk a precarious landing.

Something like that can send a gymnast sideways, especially someone who’s still trying to get her feel for competition back.

“I just knew that she needed some encouragement and somebody to trust her gymnastics for her and to believe in her. So that’s exactly what I did,” Biles said.

“I’ve been in her shoes,” Biles said, alluding to her experience in Tokyo, where mental health issues and the isolation of COVID restrictions resulted in a case of “the twisties,” causing her to lose her sense of where she was in the air. Unwilling to risk her physical safety, Biles withdrew from four individual event finals before returning to win a bronze medal on the balance beam, and it would take many, many months before she could trust her gymnastics again.

“I know how traumatizing it is, especially on a big stage like this, and I didn’t want her to get in her head,” Biles said. “So we just went and talked about it while she was in the back and then, when she came out, I went to support her.”

It might seem small, that moment of kindness among competitors. But Biles didn’t have to do it. There’s an Olympic team to be made at the end of the month, after all, and everyone is a rival.

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OK, maybe not for Biles. She won the U.S. title, extending her own record, and did it in a rout. In a sport where medals can be determined by tenths and hundredths of a point, Biles won by almost six points, with a total score of 119.75. She is all but assured of a spot on the Paris team.

But Biles’ WCC teammates are still fighting for their places on that squad. As is Lee, the reigning Olympic all-around champion. Biles could have left Lee to fend for herself, and no one would have thought a thing of it. She could have said nothing, and no one would have noticed.

But Biles knows how scary it is when your body doesn’t do what you expect it to. What you’ve always been able to make it do. It’s disorienting, physically and psychologically, and if Biles can spare someone else that pain, she will.

“I don’t think I could have done it without her,” Lee said. “She’s been one of my biggest inspirations for a long time. I know we’re kind of teammates and competitors, but she’s somebody that I look up to. So to hear those words coming from her means a lot.”

Biles did not have to show grace to a competitor who was struggling. That she did speaks volumes about who she is, in a way her many medals cannot.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Simone Biles shows herself to be champion on, off the floor

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