KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sunisa Lee is content, she says, and as the first-year senior gymnast sits and dangles her feet off a platform set up for the U.S. gymnastics national championships, it’s hard to tell otherwise.
“I’m super-happy with how I ended up at this meet,” the silver medalist in Kansas City says, an easy smile curling around her lips.
Lee took home the silver in the all-around competition at Sprint Center on Sunday. For many gymnasts, that might leave a sour taste in their mouths — so close to a gold. One step away. The 2020 Olympics loom large, so these gymnasts can ill afford missteps if they want to see their dreams come to fruition.
Things are just a little different when you’re taking second behind Simone Biles.
Biles secured her record-tying sixth U.S. gymnastics national championship Sunday night, winning gold in the floor exercise, balance beam and vault, cruising as she usually does to yet another career accolade.
She’s the best gymnast of all-time, and that’s hardly an opinion. Outside of her accomplishments, which include four gold medals at the 2016 Olympics and four world championships, Biles has won every meet she’s entered dating back to the 2013 nationals, and often by wide margins.
At this championship meet alone, Biles unveiled two unprecedented moves. Friday night, Biles became the first ever to land a double-double balance beam dismount — meaning two flips and two twists — and Sunday night, she became the first to complete a triple-double, which means three twists and two flips.
Even the other gymnast people often point to when arguing the best of all-time, Mary Lou Retton, said Biles is better.
“I say it over and over,” Retton told People magazine in 2016. “She is the greatest gymnast ever. I really do think that.”
So, Lee said, when Biles is involved, the barometer for success shifts. The measuring stick bends to accommodate Biles’ legend. At any other meet, perhaps the gymnasts who finished second, third and fourth would leave wanting more.
This just wasn’t that.
“I do consider it a win,” Lee said, “just because she’s unbeatable.”
That seemed to be the consensus among those who finished behind Biles at last weekend’s meet: It’s just different competing against someone of Biles’ caliber.
Morgan Hurd, who finished fourth, used the word “superhuman” to describe Biles and her transcendent talent. MyKayla Skinner, the eighth-place finisher, said Biles is “out of this world.” Leanne Wong, 15, who took fifth, said she saw Biles, 22, as a role model when she was younger.
“It’s crazy. She does stuff that I never even thought people could do,” Lee said. “It’s a little bit intimidating. It kind of changes my mindset a little bit, just because I feel like I’m not as good as her. So when I’m competing next to her, it’s kind of crazy. Ending up second, it gave me a little bit of confidence.”
For Skinner, who trained with Biles as an alternate for the 2016 Olympics, it comes down to awe at times. How did she do that? How is she so good? How?
“Simone’s so good she could fall in every event and still win,” Skinner said. “Sometimes I just look at her, and I feel like she’s not human. I don’t know. She’s crazy.”
Another side of this involves the attention and media coverage — or lack thereof — that Biles’ contemporaries receive when she’s competing. Biles is a specter, attracting attention from the furthest reaches of whichever meet she’s competing in. Die-hards. Casuals. Doesn’t matter.
Sunday night, when Biles landed the first-ever triple-double in her floor routine, she leapt so high that those on the ground had to crane their necks to track her jump.
“But Simone deserves it,” Skinner said of the extra attention. “She’s out of this world. For me, I try not to worry about that kind of stuff, which really helps. The time will come, and I hope one day I can be like Simone, which would be cool.”
Part of what makes the words of Skinner, Hurd, Lee and others so profound is that they’re plenty accomplished themselves.
Skinner, a five-time national team member, has won three medals at the world championships.
Hurd, the 2017 world all-around champion and a five-time world medalist, was a member of the gold-medal winning American team at the 2018 world championships.
Lee just took second behind Biles.
None could come remotely close to challenging Biles, but by the same token, none of them were any annoyed by it. Lee said she considers Biles the greatest gymnast ever.
That’s how good Biles is, and how she shifts the way her competition measures success.
“Just watching her go out there and freaking nail it every time,” Skinner said. “I know everyone has mistakes, and they fall here and there, but watching her go out and enjoy gymnastics and watch her sell it and fly like a freaking beast. I don’t even know how she does it. I’m like, ‘Can I be you?’”
For Biles herself, the attention holds value — and not just because she’s the one receiving it.
“I feel like my heart stops,” Biles said, “because I’m like, ‘Wow, they actually noticed me.’ What we do, I feel like, is so much smaller, and I feel like gymnastics isn’t that widely recognized. So to get that support from everybody else, and they’re really excited about it, makes us feel like we’re doing something good.”
It’s important to note here that these gymnasts all spoke glowingly of Biles. They weren’t insulting themselves.
Several simpy said Biles influences them in a slew of ways.
“Watching her train, especially, it’s really inspiring,” Eaker said. “It makes me want to be the best I can be and strive to do better.”
For Wong, Biles’ mere presence at this weekend’s event made a difference. Even if Biles stands just 4-foot-8.
“It’s really cool to have such great gymnasts competing next to you,” Wong said, “and it really pushes you to be working out and doing all your things next to the greatest gymnast in the nation.”
Ditto for Skinner, who added an intriguing note: Maybe it is possible to keep pace with Biles.
It just might take some time.
“She definitely makes you want to go back in the gym and work harder,” Skinner said. “When you watch someone else do it, you’re like, ‘If Simone can do it, I can do it.’ Just going back in the gym and working harder. She definitely helps push me to want to be better and to want to be at the top as well.”