RIO DE JANEIRO — Monday’s gymnastics apparatus finals revealed that Simone Biles is, in fact, human, Laurie Hernandez is a star-in-waiting and the balance beam, gymnastics’ answer to mother nature, can spoil any of the best laid plans.
Biles’s gold-medal run paused at three on Monday, though she captured her fourth Olympic medal, taking bronze on the beam after nearly toppling off. Teammate Hernandez performed a strong, clean routine, good enough to pull in a silver, and Dutchwoman Sanne Wevers won gold with routine that stood out with a sharp contrast in styles to the others.
Aside from the stumble, Biles was otherwise clean on her routine, executing an acrobatic sequence—flip-flop, layout, layout—with no problem. Then, when executing a front tucked somersault, an element that is usually a snap for her, she landed low, caught her heel and appeared set to come off the beam. She grabbed it with both hands to keep herself aboard, but still took a major deduction similar to a fall. Biles finished with a high difficulty score, 6.5, but still took third because of lower execution.
“I’m mad at myself,” Biles said. “It was still a good routine. I still got a medal, but it isn’t a skill I usually mess up.”
In fact, Biles has rarely messed up anything during a brilliant competition that brought her golds in the team competition, all-around and vault on three different days. She became just the second woman since 1960 to win golds in all three phases of the same Olympic gymnastics competition. She will compete in the floor exercise final, along with teammate Aly Raisman, on Tuesday and will enter as the prohibitive favorite.
“Simone is also a human being like all of us,” said U.S. program director Martha Karolyi. "We like to say she’s super human. She can make a mistake, too, especially on the beam, which is the most unforgiving of any mistake that you make. It might be one slight lack of concentration over a long week with many routines and that one second is enough.”
Hernandez’s performance was a sort of coming out party for her on the international scene. The bubbly 16-year old finished second to Biles at the U.S. trials, but was kept out of the all-around earlier this week because only four of the five U.S. gymnasts could compete in qualifying on bars. Biles and Raisman were sure to be two of them, as was bars specialist Madison Kocian. Gabby Douglas was picked to the team mainly for her ability to do bars. That left Hernandez as a spectator for the all-around competition.
But on beam, she showed off the spunk and confidence that has earned her a devoted following in the sport in a short time. She was fearless during her acrobatic series, landed her dismount and waited to see if her more dynamic routine would outscore Wevers’s more elegant one. In the end, the judges awarded Wevers 15.466 to 15.333 for Hernandez. Biles was a distant third with 14.733.
“I don’t ever really think of falling off,” Hernandez says. “You can do the same skills on a floor, right?” Hernandez’s teammates often tease her because she instinctively walks along curbs, about the same four-inch width as the balance beam even when they walk along wide streets. “I don’t even know I’m doing it,” she says. “It’s a funny habit I’ve had.” There was no reason to break this one.
Now Hernandez is done in Rio, but she certainly has her best gymnastics ahead of her. Along with 16-year-old Ragan Smith, one of the alternates on the Rio team, she will be primed to lead the next generation of gymnasts should Biles choose to retire, a decision that is up in the air. Either way, Karolyi, who has announced her retirement after the Rio Games, sounded confident about Hernandez’s future.
“Laurie has proven a lot in her first year as a senior,” Karolyi said. “Can you do it on the world stage? Now we know the answer is yes, and that is very exciting.”
Wevers was an unexpected winner. Ten years after making her first appearance at the European Championships, the 24-year-old Dutchwoman performed a routine that was short on acrobatic skills, but big on pirouettes, a skill that Wevers is known for. She pulled off a triple turn without a hint of hesitation early in the routine and later added a turn that reversed fields and headed back in the other direction. She and her twin sister, Lieke, a teammate on the Dutch squad for several years, are known as for the particular attribute that earned Sanne a silver medal at worlds last year and a gold medal in Rio. At the European Games in Baku last summer, it was Lieke who walked away with the title.
“It’s many years hoping for one great moment,” Sanne said. “I am still in disbelief. I am still shaking.”
In two other events on Tuesday, North Korea’s Ri Se-gwang won the vault competition and Greece’s Eleftherios Petrounias, took the rings event. Both gymnasts entered their specialty events as defending world champions. No U.S. gymnasts qualified for the eight-man final on either apparatus.