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Opinion: Simone Biles actually looks vulnerable heading into Tuesday's team final

Simone Biles is owning her G.O.A.T. status heading into the Tokyo Olympics

TOKYO — Coming into the Tokyo Olympics, the safest bet you could make was that Simone Biles would have a gold rush the likes of which has never been seen in women’s gymnastics.

She would become the first woman in more than a half-century to repeat as the Olympic all-around champion. Golds on vault, beam and floor would give her a share of the record for most golds by any female athlete, in any sport.

And, of course, Biles would lead the American women to their third consecutive Olympic team title, the final Tuesday a coronation as much as a competition.

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All of that is still possible despite Biles and the U.S. women face planting in qualifying, where they finished second, to Russia, for the first time in more than a decade. But this was the second consecutive meet where Biles struggled, and a closer look at the numbers shows she is more vulnerable than anyone could have imagined.

a man that is standing in the snow: Team USA will need Simone Biles to be better than she was during Sunday's qualifying. © Danielle Parhizkaran, USA TODAY Sports Team USA will need Simone Biles to be better than she was during Sunday's qualifying.

“We had great performances and some not-so-great ones,” national team coordinator Tom Forster said after qualifying Sunday. “But the errors we made, I think, are mental.”

At first glance, any handwringing about Biles seems like much ado about nothing.

Despite nearly bouncing off the podium on floor exercise, going out of bounds on vault and staggering several steps back on her balance beam dismount, she still finished atop the all-around standings.

By more than three-tenths of a point.

She also made all four event finals, the first woman to do so at an Olympics since 1992. Clean up her errors, and add the upgrades she can do on vault and beam, and the gap between Biles and the rest of the world returns to its usual chasm.

But Biles was only a botched pirouette on uneven bars by Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade from being bumped to second in the all-around standings. She was second to Italy’s Vanessa Ferrari on floor exercise, an event Biles has owned, with five world titles and an Olympic gold medal since 2013. She only made the balance beam final because China had three gymnasts in the top five and there’s a limit of two per country.

And had she fallen on beam, as she did the second night of Olympic trials, Biles might very well have been two-per-countried out of the all-around final.

Video: Simone Biles: We should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case (Yahoo! Sports)

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It’s a staggering thought – that exhale you heard was from NBC executives – and, given that scoring starts anew in finals, one that is maybe a tad bit hysterical. But this is now two meets in a row where Biles has gotten what can be considered wake-up calls, after Suni Lee finished ahead of her the second night of Olympic trials.

Biles and the rest of the U.S. women appeared nonchalant about their performance, laughing and making faces. They breezed past media afterward, just as they'd done after podium training. 

But in an Instagram post Monday, Biles said she is well aware of what's at stake. Maybe too aware. 

"It wasn’t an easy day or my best but I got through it,” she wrote. “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!”

If qualifying showed the Americans anything, it’s how much they rely on Biles. She might still be able to win when she has a less-than-perfect day but they cannot.

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Back in April, there was much eye rolling at Russia coach Valentina Rodionenko’s declaration that the Russians would “easily beat” the U.S. women if not for Biles.

“She’s 70 percent of the American team,” Rodionenko said, according to the Gymnovosti website’s translation of her interview with MatchTV.

Well, the Americans did beat Russia by almost six points at the 2019 world championships, and by almost nine points the year before that. That’s more than just #SimoneThings. The Americans were considered so deep, in fact, it was often said they could send a second team and even that one would challenge the Russians for silver.

As it turns out, though, Rodionenko was on to something.

The U.S. women did not have to count a fall in qualifying. Aside from Grace McCallum on balance beam, the difficulty in the routines they counted was not markedly different from the Olympic trials. They got dinged on their execution scores, but this was hardly a surprise. (This is not a problem unique to the United States, but warm-and-fuzzy judging at domestic competitions does no one any favors.)

No doubt the Americans were expecting to count Jordan Chiles’ scores on balance beam and, maybe, uneven bars. But they finished more than a point behind Russia. Even if Chiles hadn’t fallen twice on beam and dragged her feet on bars, that was unlikely to erase the Russian advantage or, if it did, it was going to be by a razor-thin margin.

No, if the Americans are to win the gold they’ve long assumed to be theirs, they’re going to need Biles to get back to being the greatest gymnast the sport has ever seen. Or at least closer to it than she was in qualifying.

“We’ll just focus on fixing the mistakes,” Forster said. “Staying in bounds would help. Simone took three big steps on her beam dismount. I’ve never seen her do that before. So those are all fixable. They’re fixable.”

Ten days from now, this all might seem like looking for trouble where there was none. Or it might be a warning of the disappointments there were to come.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Simone Biles actually looks vulnerable heading into Tuesday's team final


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