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Olympics

Column: In the end Simone Biles lost it: Not the gold, but her emotions

Simone Biles
American gymnast Simone Biles performs her floor exercise during the women’s all-around competition Thursday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

She joked, poked, pointed into the stands, sprawled on the floor, laughingly yawned, flitted around the tense Rio Olympic Arena like it was a Thursday afternoon at Gymboree.

But when the announcement came, seconds after one of the most dominating all-around gymnastics performances in Olympic history, she performed her most dramatic leaping twist yet.

Simone Biles cried.

The sunniest woman at these Olympics stepped away from a sky-scraping, jaw-dropping floor routine, heard the announcer intone, “She’s the Olympic champion 2016,” and finally, actually, lost it.

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Biles cried, teammate Aly Raisman cried, mentor Martha Karolyi cried, Biles’ 17-person cheering section cried, tears everywhere to mark the emotional end to an extraordinary American journey.

“When I knew I had finally done it, every emotion hit me at once,” said Biles, normally a 4-foot-8 bundle of giggles. “It was kind of a train wreck.’’

It was kind of just the opposite, a thing of beauty, a show of strength, a triumph of togetherness, a kid who once lived in a foster home flying into the embrace of an entire country, a young woman who never dared dream of this moment actually living it.

“Yeah, I think we all cried,” said her father Ron, sitting with 16 raucous family members and friends. “It’s been a long journey.”

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It ended in a manner befitting perhaps the greatest female gymnast ever, powerfully, emphatically, with her competitors burying their shiny faces in their chalky hands.

After two of the four apparatuses, including her hated uneven bars, Biles trailed Russia’s Aliya Mustafina by three-hundredths of a percentage point.

Worry? Giggle.

 “I was just relieved that bars were over,” she said.

Biles calmly stepped to the balance beam, engraved an “S” in chalk on the beam like she always does, and went to work.

First, she glided across that four-inch-wide piece of material like it was a dance floor. Then, with samba music blaring, she put on a bouncing floor routine that could have taken place at Staples Center.

Seriously, there are times she somersaulted so high it looked like she could have dunked, and other times she twisted like red, white and blue carnival taffy.

“Her tumbling was up, up in the sky,’’ said Karolyi, the retiring national team coordinator.

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So were her scores, which ultimately wiped out everyone, Biles finished nearly two full points ahead of Raisman and nearly four points ahead of third-place Mustafina. A historic landslide? The average margin of victory in this Olympic event since 1972 is .208 points, so you figure it out.

In perfect Biles fashion, it was followed by moments that also make her one of the most wonderfully ordinary gymnasts ever.

She walked into one post-match interview session groaning from an apparent leg cramp, then giggling when she was asked how she felt.

“I’m hungry,” she told the world’s media. “And I have to go to the bathroom.”

Upstairs, her father was asked how he was feeling, and his answer was just as real.

“I want a drink,” he said with a smile. “I. Want. A. Drink.”

After acknowledging his drink of choice was Cognac, and that he had a bottle at their apartment, he surmised what makes his daughter so likeable.

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“She’s a genuine, sweet caring kid,” he said. “I mean, she’s not full of it.”

Biles indeed comes from a background completely lacking in pretension. She was taken away from her drug- and alcohol-addicted mother when she was a toddler and placed in a foster home. She and her younger sister Adria were eventually adopted and raised by her biological grandparents Ron and Nellie in the Houston area.

When she was 6, a school field trip was canceled and the kids visited a gymnastics center. Biles returned home that afternoon with a note suggesting she enroll for lessons, and so her career began.

She was powerful and perfectly built for the sport, but her focus was shaky, and she was pulled out of her first senior level meet because she fell on every event. In 2013, she was taken to see a sports psychologist and Karolyi. Both talks worked  and two months later she won a world title and hasn’t lost since, three consecutive world titles and an Olympic gold and counting.

Even with success, she hasn’t been able to outrun more unfair discomfort.

In 2013, when Biles was beginning to dominate, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito said to a Italian journalist. “I told [a teammate)] that next time we should also paint our skin black so then we can win too.”

Ferlito apologized, and Biles accepted it but on Thursday Biles beat Ferlito down to 12th place, by a landslide of nearly six points.

 “If you ask any gymnast who has won an all-around gold medal, they will tell you it’s everything they dreamed of since they were a little girl,” said Biles, holding gold in her hands. “But for me, it’s been a little different.”

How different?

Several hours before Thursday’s finals, she tweeted: “What do to, what to do with my makeup today? Hmmm.”

She then FaceTimed her mother and told her she was ready, at which point her parents just warned her to be careful.

 “Winning is great,” Ron said. “But I just don’t want her falling off that beam.”

When it ended, Biles was taken into a corner of the arena tunnel by Karolyi, who, according to Biles, told her, “A couple of years ago, you were just this bouncy thing, and now you stand here as an Olympic champion, so a lot has changed.”

Biles ended the story with another giggle. A lot has changed. And a lot has not changed. On a triumphantly American afternoon at the Olympics, there was beauty in both.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @BillPlaschke

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