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RIO DE JANEIRO — Off to the side, off in the shadows, Bela Karolyi stood and watched this outrageous, audacious gymnast before him.
He had, in many ways, four decades prior created this, the American infatuation with gymnastics. Ever since he and his wife Marta had cultivated it, stoking the fires of a juggernaut. One generation greater than the next, Nadia to Mary Lou to this, Bela at 73 years old staring as Simone Biles soared higher and spun faster than he ever could have fathomed.
“The joy,” Karolyi said of watching it, his old Hungarian accent still thick. “The satisfaction.”
Up in Section 112 of Rio Olympic Arena, front and center, Ron Biles stood and watched this whirlwind, wonderful daughter of his.
He had, a decade and a half ago, adopted Simone Biles, the daughter of his daughter who at the time was struggling through life. Simone and a younger sister arrived at his home in Texas, so energetic, so “bouncy,” so, he said, “loud.”
“I’d be trying to watch football and they’d be making noise, jumping around,” Ron laughed.
He knew nothing about gymnastics back then. He’s an old Air Force veteran, now retired air traffic controller and Cleveland Browns fan. On Thursday, he was staring at that little girl turned 19-year-old world conqueror, completing a daring floor exercise, electrifying Brazil with a beaming smile and then crying tears in winning all-around gymnastics gold by a record margin. He watched her stand on top of the podium, with gold around her neck, watching the American flag lifted high above.
“Pride,” Ron said. “Pride. I need a new word for pride … I don’t know what else to say.”
********There was nothing to say. Simone Biles said it all. Someone wins gold in every Olympics, someone is better and more brilliant than the rest. Some years, however, someone literally takes the world’s breath away, as Biles did with each routine that tested the boundaries of difficulty yet were somehow delivered with seeming ease.
She won by 2.100 points, beating American teammate Aly Raisman by the largest margin ever under the current scoring system. It more than tripled the Olympic mark of 0.6 courtesy of Nastia Liukin in 2008 and far exceeded a 1.25 gap rung up by Shawn Johnson at the 2007 world championships.
“It’s such an honor,” Biles said.
It was a rout, even though Biles was actually slightly trailing Aliya Mustafina after two events by 0.034. The veteran Russian and 2012 bronze medalist is known for her toughness, and she showed it by refusing to roll over against the mighty Biles, refusing to let the coronation go on unchecked. For a moment there, Mustafina actually made a match out of the all-around competition, forcing Biles to reclaim control on the balance beam, but she would finish with the bronze.
“That made this competition so spicy, so beautiful,” Karolyi said. “I enjoyed that moment. The beam is the leaning point, the left or the right. The best-trained gymnast stays on the beam.”
And when Biles delivered on beam?
“That was the point there was no doubt in my mind we had the gold in our pocket,” he said.
********Ron Biles wasn’t as sure. Oh, he never doubted his daughter, certainly not when she fell to second place. That was mostly because by now, having sat through Simone winning three world titles and this Olympic competition, he knew that his daughter’s best events, and Mustafina’s weaker ones, were still to come. Still, it was not until Biles completed the second wild tumbling pass of her floor exercise that he allowed himself to exhale. She had this. The frayed nerves of a parent began to calm.
“I knew then,” he said.
So what now? How do you celebrate when your kid is crowned best in the world? The Biles family would get to see Simone in person for a little while on Thursday, their first face-to-face meeting in weeks in an effort to focus concentration. All Ron Biles wanted was a hug.
“Then I need a drink to celebrate,” Ron said.
He laughed. Cognac is his beverage of choice. It isn’t popular in Rio, where beer and booze distilled from pure sugar cane rule. You can’t just walk into a bar and get one. He planned ahead though, leaving nothing to chance.
“I have a bottle in my room,” Ron said with a laugh.
********That Simone Biles could find her way here, bouncing and beaming and bawling in Rio, the combination of otherworldly skill and the highest-imaginable quality of training is also to tell the story of Bela and Ron. They are two men, two forward thinkers, two problem solvers who look not at what can’t be done but what will be possible. They are parts of two American families that represent the impossibly and wonderfully diverse fabric of this rollicking nation.
Bela is an immigrant, an old Hungarian boxer who married a gymnast, Marta, and designed a groundbreaking system of centralized gymnastics training in Romania. In 1976, he arrived at the Montreal Olympics with a prized student, Nadia Comaneci, where she recorded the first-ever perfect 10.
America, Cold War or not, was transfixed by the Eastern European sensation. By 1981, unable to live under Russian rule, the Karolyis decided to determine their own future and defected to the United States. They opened a gym in Oklahoma. In 1984, Bela arrived at the Los Angeles Olympics with a prized student, Mary Lou Retton, a powerhouse tumbler out of West Virginia who would redefine the sport.
America was again transfixed, with a gymnastics boom sweeping the country, leading to a generation of girls that won gold in 1996 at the Atlanta Games. Under Marta’s guidance as USA Gymnastics team coordinator, the U.S. has now captured consecutive team golds and four Olympic all-around titles in a row (Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and now Biles).
Each wave pushing the next, not just to victory, but also to the edges of what was previously thought possible, all to Bela’s continued astonishment.
“People ask me, ‘How does Nadia compare to this one? How does Mary Lou compare to this one?’ ” Bela said. “I say, ‘They are all the best of their time, and there is no comparison.’ You can’t compare it because gymnastics is an ongoing, changing and more and more complex and difficult sport. So you cannot compare a performance in 2016 Brazil to 1976 Montreal.
“Many times I was wondering how far does this go?” Bela continued, each time thinking the sport had been perfected. “After Nadia’s performance in Montreal, I said, ‘Well, maybe this is it.’
“Well, you know what? [Expletive],” he said with a laugh. “Five years later little kids were playing with the same skills. Then Mary Lou came with the muscle and tumbling. I said, ‘This is it. Higher than that no one can go. Nothing else can be showcased on the floor.’
“[Expletive],” he laughed again. “Five year later everyone [could do it]. And now look at Simone. The ultimate, ultimate.”
********Ron Biles was born and raised in Cleveland, but was in the Air Force in Texas, when he took care of his daughter Shanon. He was a single father. It wasn’t ideal, a young soldier and a young baby, but he was determined to find the best for her. He wasn’t going to walk away. Shanon eventually returned to her mother in Ohio, although Ron stayed involved. He later married a local college student, Nellie, and they started a family of their own, having two sons.
Shanon grew up and had four children in Ohio, including two young daughters, Simone and Adria, before falling into a life of addiction. This was a crisis. Ron and Nellie thought they were past the days of raising young children, but life is never run in a straight line. So they stepped in and adopted Simone and her sister. They were needed. It was necessary. They were mother and father again.
This was a non-traditional family, but it was an American family, one rooted in love and shared responsibilities and offering hope for young talent to blossom. These are good people. These are the best people. How it all came together doesn’t matter. How it all comes out does. The situation became a gift, Ron said, and not because of gymnastics.
“Simone is a sweet girl,” Ron said. “She’s honest and caring. She thinks of everyone else first. Everyone knows her as a gymnast, but she is more than that. I’d be just as proud of her today if she wasn’t a gymnast. You know?”
Yes, everyone knows.
The girls he served as a safety net for are his pride and joy, Adria as much as Simone. As for the Olympic champion, well, not even she sees herself quite like that.
“To me,” Simone said, “I’m just the same Simone. I just have two Olympic gold medals now.”
To Ron, he has a bright and smart daughter, a UCLA sophomore, a teenager who is so selfless she risked losing her own concentration before her final routine to go congratulate her teammate, Raisman. It was Raisman who was crying, overcome with her own emotion after a furious, beautiful floor routine that clinched her own, long-coveted silver medal. At that moment, at the very moment Simone would be excused for only caring about herself, she cared about her friend.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to make me cry before my floor,'” Simone said laughing. “And that wasn’t going to be good.”
It didn’t matter. Biles crushed the floor exercise and then stunned everyone, her parents and her coaches, and cried herself.
“Every emotion hit me at once,” Simone said.
“She’s definitely a giggly girl, not a crier,” Marta Karolyi said. No one could blame Simone, though. Soon Simone and Raisman were standing together, hugging, not as gold medalist and silver medalist, but as teammates and confidants.
“I’m more happy for her than I am for myself,” Simone said.
Then they ran over and found Mustafina and brought her into the embrace. The Russian had tested her. She deserved the same respect, the same shared joy.
That, Ron said, that right there is his daughter.
“She’s just …” he continued, his voice catching, his eyes watering, “she’s just … amazing.”
That, from the sports oldest pioneers watching from the side, to the family members swelled with pride, to its most casual of onlookers back at home, was undeniable about Simone Biles, the great, great Simone Biles.