With less than a month until the Summer Olympics kick off in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, the athletes are gearing up for their big events. One of the stars we’re most looking forward to watching is 19-year-old gymnast Simone Biles. A three-time consecutive winner of all-around world championships, Biles is widely expected to take home the gold, possibly more than one. We talked to former Olympians Nadia Comaneci (the first gymnast to score a perfect 10 at the games) and Dominique Dawes (the first African-American woman to win an individual medal in Olympic gymnastics) about the evolution of the sport. One thing is clear: They’re just as amazed by Biles as the rest of us.
Beyond the Perfect 10
Comaneci made her mark in Olympic history in 1976. Two decades later, Dawes accomplished her historic feat. Now, another 20 years later, Biles will compete along with teammates Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian. While the goal of winning gold remains the same, the methodology has changed since Comaneci’s and Dawes’ days on the floor. Probably the biggest tweak: A new scoring system, which eliminated the ability to score a perfect 10. After the 2004 Olympics, points were divided into two categories: one for difficulty and the other for execution. The final score is the total of those two, meaning gymnasts can earn numbers well above 10. “The new scoring system allows an athlete to do much more difficult tricks and get value for them,” Dawes says. “When Nadia and I were competing, it made no sense to do them because you wouldn’t get value for them. That’s why Simone is such a dominant athlete now—she can do those harder tricks and get value for them.” “Her tricks are higher in difficulty, much more than everybody else. So she can fall and still win, which is hard to believe,” says Comaneci.
Gymnastics may be an individual sport, but when it comes to the Olympics, Team USA is in it together. “It’s not a team sport, but you still have a team,” Comaneci says. Before Dawes joined her teammates in the Magnificent Seven (the 1996 women’s gymnastics team that won the first Olympic gold medal for the USA), she was hoping to beat them. “People don’t realize this, but we were competitors our whole childhood up until those Olympic games and for those couple of days of competition,” she says. “Then, you unify as a team and support one another.” Dawes remembers having a major meltdown before going into the arena and being comforted by Amanda Borden, the team captain. “She knelt down with me and prayed, and helped me feel a little more at ease knowing I’d spent 13 years of my childhood for this one moment, which was quite overwhelming,” says Dawes.
Break a leg! (But not actually)
Besides physical stamina, gymnasts also need serious mental strength to get on the podium. For Comaneci and Dawes, that meant a lot of mind games with their coaches. Comaneci’s coach, Bela Karolyi, often brought people into the gym to create noise, so she could practice while learning to block out the crowd. Kelli Hill, who coached Dawes throughout her entire career, tested her focus by walking underneath the balance beam to create distraction. “If you don’t have it upstairs mentally, you’re going to fall apart,” Dawes explains. Biles found extra guidance through her sports psychologist to manage what’s going on inside her head just as skillfully as she does outside in the area. “Being cool, calm and collected is something my coach used to always teach us, and it paid off for some of my Olympic games, and I hope it’s going to pay off for her [Biles’] Olympic game, as well,” Dawes says.
To see Olympic powerhouses Nadia, Dominique and Simone in a high-energy video sponsored by Tide Pods, click here.