RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Simone Biles spent Sunday morning in the warm-up gym thinking not of history but perfection.
When it didn’t happen — and really, it never does in gymnastics anymore — the 19-year-old star settled for a pretty sweet consolation prize: a third gold medal in Rio.
Twisting and flipping through the air with explosive precision, Biles easily captured gold in the women’s vault final on Sunday. Her two-vault average of 15.966 was more than .7 better than silver medalist Maria Paseka of Russia and bronze medalist Giulia Steingruber of Switzerland. The margin between first and second was greater than second and eighth, a symbol of the canyon Biles created between herself and her peers.
Biles’ triumph is the first in the Olympics by an American woman on vault, and her first vault title in a major international competition. It’s heady territory, though Biles wasn’t quite so thrilled when her feet moved just a touch on the landing of her Amanar.
“I just wanted to stick a vault so badly here and it didn’t happen,” Biles said. “I can be disappointed about that but I can’t be disappointed with the gold.”
Good idea considering there may be more on the way. Biles is in the balance beam final on Monday and the floor exercise final on Tuesday, events in which she happens to be the reigning world champion. The chance of her leaving Rio going an unprecedented 5-for-5 is looking more inevitable than impossible.
Not that Biles is getting ahead of herself. While she’s aware of her growing celebrity inside the athlete’s village, Biles and coach Aimee Boorman are trying to remain in the comfortable rhythm Biles and the rest of her “Final Five” teammates follow during any other meet. It wasn’t hard to keep Biles engaged heading into the event which Boorman thought would be Biles’ best when she reached the elite level in 2013.
“When she first entered the elite world we thought ‘maybe you’ll make a world team and be a vault specialist,'” Boorman said. “She never won her gold at worlds but now she’s got her Olympic gold.”
Other takeaways from the first day of event finals inside the Rio Olympic Arena.
BRITAIN’S BREAKTHROUGH: During the first 116 years of the Olympics, Great Britain won exactly zero gold medals in gymnastics of any variety. Max Whitlock gave his home country two in the span of an hour. The 23-year-old edged Brazil’s Diego Hypolito in the men’s floor exercise then beat teammate and friendly rival Louis Smith on pommel horse a short time later.
The triumph marked a high point in a renaissance that began in 2008 when Smith earned a bronze on pommel horse in Beijing. The Brits added a team bronze in London four years ago and the momentum has continued to build. Smith’s silver gave him three on pommels in his career and Whitllock’s sublime routine had the teammates standing side by side on the podium as the Union Jack was raised and “God Save the Queen” played over the loudspeakers.
“It was really cool to see two flags rise up there,” Whitlock said. “It was just an amazing feeling.”
MUSTAFINA’S METTLE: Aliya Mustafina of Russia defended her gold medal on uneven bars, edging American Madison Kocian in a taut final. Mustafina’s score of 15.9 was just ahead of Kocian’s 15.833. The difference came down to difficulty. Mustafina’s start value was a .1 higher than Kocian’s, giving the former world all-around champion her seventh Olympic medal.
The 21-year-old draped the Russian flag over her shoulders in victory while celebrating a draining comeback from injuries that threatened to derail her career. Mustafina took third in the all-around last week behind Biles and Aly Raisman, calling the Americans “unbeatable.” Asked if she considers herself the same on uneven bars, Mustafina smiled and said “well, now I think yes.”
Sophie Scheder of Germany earned bronze. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, the all-around champion in London, finished seventh in what is likely her final competition.
HISTORY MAKERS: Oksana Chusovitina has no plans to make her seventh Olympics her last. The 41-year-old plans to keep training through Tokyo 2020 following a seventh-place finish on vault. She blew kisses to the crowd during a video tribute as she made her way off the floor. It looked like she was saying good-bye. Turns out, it was more like “see you next time.”
“It was very simple,” Chusovitina said. “I woke up in the morning and bingo the decision was there.”
Dipa Karmakar of India just missed out on bronze in vault, remarkable considering she’s the first Indian woman to compete in the Olympics.
NADDOUR’S REDEMPTION: Alex Naddour became the first American since 1984 to earn a medal on pommel horse when he came in a close third behind Smith on pommel horse. It served as a bit of redemption for Naddour. He was an alternate four years ago in London and struggled on floor exercise in the team final last week as the U.S. finished fifth. He washed his uniform in baby detergent so he would be reminded of his infant daughter Lilah.
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