Vahe Gregorian

Simone Biles hits gymnastics milestone as sport continues along path of hope, healing

Some 12,230 people attended the women’s finals of the U.S. Gymnastics national championships on Sunday at Sprint Center, making for a four-day total of 33,894 that set a record for the event.

And they could all leave Sunday knowing they’d been part of something rare: They’d witnessed a new plateau attained by the greatest who ever lived — the transcendent Simone Biles, who won her sixth U.S. all-around championship to go with her four gold medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics and four world all-around championships.

Yet this was anything but routine for the 22-year-old Biles, who became the first woman to land a triple-double (a double backflip with three twists) on her floor performance to go with her unprecedented double-double off the balance beam.

“It’s historical: She hit a hole-in-one, and we were all there,” said Tom Forster, the U.S. women’s high-performance director.

Maybe all the more so after a competition marked by Biles’ agonizing words on Wednesday, when she spoke with emotion she’d never displayed before about her ongoing trauma in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal and all that came with it.

That’s why the latest exclamation point on Biles’ increasingly indisputable stature as the greatest in the history of the sport, and one of the best athletes in the world today, stands for something more substantial, too.

For all the agony she will forever face as one of the hundreds who came forward to say they were sexually abused by the monstrous former team physician, for all the betrayals of trust she still must process, Biles again affirmed what she told a few reporters here in February before being the featured guest at the WIN For KC banquet.

“For the longest time, I blamed myself, and I feel like the difference between a victim and survivor is that you come out of it and you feel empowered,” she said then.

Moreover, if events of the last few days are any indication, she may also stand on the cusp of another sense of empowerment as USA Gymnastics seeks traction to inch forward out of the toxic quicksand in which it’s been sputtering.

The unspeakable acts of Nassar and the corrupt leadership that enabled it and ensuing wretched missteps have left the organization reeling. Facing potential decertification by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, that process is on pause now … because the USAG declared bankruptcy “as the most efficient means to be able to reach a fair and equitable solution with the survivors,” as president and CEO Li Le Leung explained Thursday morning.

Small wonder that when Leung in February left her job as an NBA vice-president for global partnerships to become the fourth USA Gymnastics leader in 23 months, friends were offering “congratulations and condolences in the same breath,” she said.

That terrain is why vigilance and healthy skepticism will be entirely appropriate for the foreseeable future.

But let’s separate that from cynicism.

During a 45-minute breakfast meeting with a dozen reporters, Leung’s candor and willingness to acknowledge some early mistakes suggests openness and accountability even as some solutions remain unclear.

In contrast to predecessors, she also projects warmth and a sincere emotional investment in trying to earn and revive faith in the national governing body of the sport that she has loved since she was 7 years old and competed in through college at the University of Michigan.

“I mean, listen, I understand that the last couple years have been unsettling at best,” said Leung, who said she was heartbroken as she followed the news from afar and concluded, “I cannot sit back and not do anything about this anymore.”

While it’s too soon to know how effective her leadership can be in altering both the culture and perception, it seems promising that she conveys empathy and preaches integrity and transparency as guiding principles.

It’s a marathon ahead, she knows, and she figures she’s in Mile One.

But it still starts with single steps.

Which brings us back to Biles.

She spoke with both profound sadness and anger Wednesday about the failures of USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee to protect its athletes, saying “they couldn’t do one damn job” and calling it all “a ticking time bomb.”

Too often in the past, those sorts of words either were ignored or merely tolerated by those in position to respond.

But Leung embraced them, issuing a sympathetic statement hours later and amplifying the point the next morning.

“I think historically our organization has silenced our gymnasts, and I am 100 percent supportive of giving our athletes a voice,” she said. “I think our athletes should be able to say what they feel and be comfortable doing so.

“And I understand that we have let down many athletes, we have let down Simone, and she needs time to heal from that. If voicing her concerns and her feelings is one way to do that, I am completely supportive of that.”

In her five months on the job, Leung said she has met with more than 400 members of the gymnastics community, including survivors of Nassar’s abuse.

She has reached out to Biles’ team and hopes in the near future for a face-to-face meeting with the face of the sport — someone that the sport can’t try to turn to enough in its hour of need

“Our sport hasn’t had one person really in that iconic role in a really long time,” Forster said. “So (her performances) helps everybody. It’s inspiring to everybody.”

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.