Would Simone 2013 Beat Gabby 2012?

You know that thing where it’s been a couple days since you posted, and you don’t know what to write about because there’s a pandemic, but then something falls right into your face?


My beloved number babies at 538 posted a piece today on how the Olympic timeline has been unkind to Simone because of GYMNAST AGE. This piece generally would have benefited from taking an era-specific look at the age of successful Olympic gymnasts rather than an overall view because the trend of the last couple decades has been one of increasing age of medal-winning gymnasts, which provides compelling counter-evidence to the conventional wisdom of “age + gymnastics = bad” on which this argument is based.

The average age of the WAG medalists at the 2016 Olympics was 20 (up two years compared to 2004 when the average medalist age was 18), and Simone was the second youngest of the bunch in Rio. That she would stick around for another Olympics, at which she’d then be one of the elder stateswomen, isn’t an odd or remarkable development.

On the issue of Simone’s timeline, it’s hardly a strange or uncommon revelation that turning senior the year after the Olympics makes for a rough schedule. Yes. Rebecca Bross on line 3. It hasn’t really mattered in Simone’s case because she’s Simone, has done an accomplishment or two in her time, and isn’t really in need of “what if” thinking the way an athlete like Bross might be. But she nonetheless had the least charitable of birth years.

Any contention, however, that Simone’s career accomplishments might actually have changed given a different birth year is more controversial. Specifically, this article contains the offhand assertion that Simone likely would have won the 2012 Olympic all-around title.

Now, as Aimee Boorman has said on 1834 occasions, Simone was not ready yet in 2012 even if she had been eligible for those Olympics, and the results bear that claim out. In 2012, Simone was a super-talented, but still scruffy, emerging ball of rubber who lost to Lexie Priessman and Maddie Desch at junior nationals and who would not have been a major contender for the Olympic team that year regardless of age division. Her scores were not nearly high enough.

In fact, Simone’s existence serves as the prime argument against pushing too hard too early because she’s the best gymnast of all time but was never at any point the best junior in the nation. Meanwhile, all these junior stars are entirely dust by the time they turn senior and never make a team, and no one has decided to learn any lessons from that.

Anyway, the counterargument here is that because Simone was not age-eligible for those Olympics, her training path was never designed for her to have reached her potential in 2012. So of course she wasn’t at Olympic level in 2012. Why would she be? If she had been eligible, then plan would have been different, and she may have been a completely different athlete in the summer of 2012. Because it didn’t happen that way, we’ll never know.

What we do know is that Actual Simone in 2012 was not at the level required to make an Olympic team, let alone win the Olympic all-around.

The complete statement in the piece is “Biles debuted as a senior the following March and won her first all-around gold at the World Championships later that year, so she likely would have done the same at the 2012 Olympics if her age-16 season had happened to fall just a year earlier.”

So, it doesn’t look like we’re claiming that Actual Simone in 2012 would have won the Olympic AA (she obviously wouldn’t have and that’s a preposterous thing to say) but rather that Simone at her age-16 quality (so, Simone 2013) would have won the Olympic all-around title, which is a more interesting contention to dig into.

It’s still a bold claim. So bold that it rankled the gymnastics community and even made Will Graves try to tweet about the code of points, which was like

But was it wrong?

Let’s dive in. Could Simone 2013 have actually defeated Gabby 2012?

To begin with, Simone’s victorious score in the 2013 final was two points lower than Gabby’s winning score in 2012…

…sadly, that information is entirely meaningless because of changes in routine evaluation between 2012 and 2013.

As Will points out, D-score changes between 2012 and 2013 were not too dramatic. Simone’s 2013 D-score was 0.8 lower than Gabby’s 2012 D-score, and while some of that can be attributed to the lowering of the Amanar by 0.2 and changes in connection value on beam that led to lower difficulty scores, it doesn’t account for all of it. Gabby is quite likely still coming out on top in difficulty compared to first-year-senior Simone.

Even if you plug Gabby’s 2012 routines into the somewhat harsher 2013 code, she still comes out ahead of Simone on difficulty by a single tenth.

The more significant change between 2012 and 2013 came not in D score but in E score. The average four-event execution score in the 2012 Olympic all-around final was a whopping 1.540 higher than it was in the all-around final at world championships the following year. The execution scores at the 2012 Olympics were comically high, and the traditional post-Olympic crackdown (in more ways than one…) rendered the 2013 numbers quite a bit lower for all athletes. In 2012, it was still possible for the best athletes to get a 9 in execution, even on non-vault events. By 2013, 8.6 had become an amazing E score.

Now, you can’t necessary attribute this entire 1.540 difference to changes in execution judging. We’d expect the overall quality of routines in an Olympic year to be higher than the quality of routines in the year after the Olympics, when many of the best athletes of the era are taking naps or dancing with various stars or learning about hair extensions. Some of this difference is simply that…the athletes in 2013 weren’t as good as a group. But it’s indisputable that the execution evaluation in 2013 was also much harsher than in 2012.

Aliya Mustafina is a very helpful example in this regard since she competed the all-around throughout both the 2012 and 2013 competitions and found her average all-around execution total in 2013 about 1.2 lower than it was in 2012, with her “hit day” execution score around 0.9 or 1.0 lower. Not quite the whole 1.5, but certainly a large and significant difference.

What I’m saying is, it’s possible to get Simone there. Barely. And only by taking the high end of that 1.5 execution difference and making a Simone-favored assumption or two about difficulty and routine composition. Then, you could account for that two-point difference between Gabby 2012 and Simone 2013.

Which is why I’d agree with the assessment that it’s a reach. You have to make the most charitable assumptions in favor of Simone to get there, and therefore can’t make the offhand claim that Simone would have won the London all-around, even at her 2013 level.

But at the same time, it’s not a totally preposterous notion. Simone 2013 against Gabby 2012 would have been close. It would have been an any-given-meet prospect depending on whether Gabby showed up with her best gymnastics or not. In the 2012 all-around final, she showed up with her best gymnastics.

What has been helpful in going back and watching these Simone routines from 2013 is the reinforcement of just how much she improved from 2013 to 2015/2016. In 2013, we see a gymnast who is still pretty scrappy in the form department, with more leg separations on bars, not hitting most of her leap positions. It’s someone who would not have defeated a number of other top gymnasts from other eras, probably including Gabby Douglas. This isn’t the “winning both the D score and E score competitions” Simone that we would come to know shortly.

Because Simone’s results have been constant for the last 7ish years, we casually tend to assume that the gymnast herself has been a constant as well. She hasn’t.

26 thoughts on “Would Simone 2013 Beat Gabby 2012?”

  1. Not saying pushing too hard too early isn’t a real thing…but using Simone as an anecdotal example just doesn’t seem helpful. Precisely because she’s the best of all time, she should be treated as an outlier. We may never see another gymnast at her level ever or at least not for a very long time.

    For every Bross, Ohashi and Priessman, there are also many successful senior gymnasts who were junior stars that won junior nationals — like Kyla Ross, Jordyn Wieber, Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and Laurie Hernandez. Internationally, Mustafina, Komova, Iordache and YJN were all junior stars as well.

    1. I think that where and when those gymnasts were at the top matters. Most of the gymnasts you mentioned were at the top as juniors towards the end of the quadrennium (when their coach knew that, even though they were juniors, they were pretty much mini seniors.) And it is not about being successful as a junior, it is often about actually peaking too early (McCain for example is one of the top juniors but she is clearly being paced.) I am thinking of gymnasts like Ohashi yes but also Kristal Uzelac, Bailey Key, etc…

    2. Whilst I don’t disagree, I do notice a trend in the examples you gave. Firstly, most of the US gymnasts you named who were successful as juniors and then also succeeded as seniors only competed for a short time as a senior. If you, however, look at the gymnasts you named who didn’t succeed as senior, you could argue they did but only for a short time. Ohashi did bear Simone and one could hypothesis if 2013 has been an Olympic year she would have ‘pushed through’ – for better of for worse. Bross also succeeded as a senior, even if she did not have the best AA final at worlds.

      I also feel the evidence stands stronger for Spencer’s argument. For example, I can think of a lot more than just Bross, Ohashi, and Preissman; Gabby Perea, Malabuyo, O’keefe, Foberg, and Jayjay also come to mind. One could also argue Ragan fits into that list – I, however, understand the argument against that, too.

  2. @anonymous I just find it funny that you mention Mustafina, Komova, Iordache, and YJN because they were ALL on the injury struggle bus for quite some time. Mustafina in particular tore her ACL in her second year of international competition, and never returned to her previous ability on the leg events, specifically vault (though bars improved substantially due to her having more time to train there while coming back). We never know how good she could/would have been had she retained her ability to do an Amanar and harder floor skills. Komova’s back severely hampered her for years in the 2013-2016 quad, and prevented her from doing inbars for some time. Iordache ended her career after a 2016 finger injury and a terrible Achilles tear in 2017 that she (unsuccessfully) tried to come back from.

    As for the Americans you mention, Wieber and Johnson only competed elite for a couple years. Johnson’s comeback in 2011 was wholly unsuccessful. Ross is definitely still a fantastic gymnast with few if any injury concerns, but an EXCEPTION to a rule.

    The rule? Junior elite success leads to severe injuries later in a gymnastics career. Examples (other than Mustafina, Komova, and Iordache lol) are the aforementioned Bross, Ohashi, and Priessman, also Bailie Key (!!! probably the best example), Peyton Ernst, Maddie Desch, Ragan Smith (had to stop elite bc ankles), Nia Dennis (though she still competes very well she’s had a torn labrum forever and has been limited while at UCLA), Jazmyn Foberg (elbow issue took her out for a full year at Florida), and Polina Shchennikova (medical retirement at Michigan).

    1. I guess it depends on how you define success? All of those gymnasts I mentioned definitely struggled with injuries for quite some time. Even Kyla struggled in 2015 with injuries and didn’t make worlds. Despite not having a ton of longevity, they all still managed to have successful careers as multiple-time world and/or Olympic individual medalists.

      Aside from Simone, who else can we name that was not a junior star and ended up with multiple world or Olympic medals?

      By the way, I totally agree that almost all cases, junior elite success leads to severe injuries later in a gymnastics career. I’m just trying to argue that Simone isn’t a good example to prove the point since she’s in a category of her own.

      1. Jade Carey – not a junior star, now has 4 world medals. But she’s exceptional that way.

      2. Ponor.
        She was literally anonymous in Romania until she was 15. At 16 she made the World team winning 3 silvers and at 17 she was a 3 times olympic champion

      3. Jade Carey is way more of an exception than Kyla. It’s very rare for someone to qualify elite that late.

        Also there’s just not that many successful gymnasts to begin with, if you can’t count gymnasts like Mustafina, Komova, YJN and Iordache, all four of whom went to at least 3 Olympic/Worlds competitions.

        I think it’s good that coaches are re-evaluating the importance of winning junior nationals but I think people are reaching when they attempt to say every gymnast was mismanaged if they were strong juniors and weak seniors. Sometimes there’s just more senior competition (Chiles). Sometimes they just physically peaked when they were younger (I would argue that Ohashi was not going to be an AAer in the 2013 quad even without injuries). And most of all, I think gymnasts are lasting longer in the current system bc the Karolyis no longer have an iron grip on the national team and are not wildly overtraining gymnasts.

      4. Gabby wasn’t really a junior star either. Also, off the top of my head, neither were Aly, Madison Kocian, Bridget Sloan, Alicia Sacramone, Courtney Kupets, or Chellsie Memmel.

      5. How many top athletes have never had a major injury? Maybe start with the past 10 years of U.S. junior and senior national team members. List how many had an injury that kept them from training for at least (I’m not sure – 3 months? 6 months?). See if there’s any difference between those who “did well” as juniors and those who didn’t. We remember the worst times injuries. But basically every one of these athletes has one or more of these.

      6. Svetlana Khorkina, wasn’t that great deal as a junior, or was she? But she also fits in to Simone -category cause she was also never injured. I don’t think she missed a single big championship through 94-04. They both were extremely well trained.

  3. Simone 2013 doesn’t even make the London team, if she got to that level? Incredible Amanar, but they’d trust Aly on BB/FX more. Maybe Aimee would make her upgrade the second vault to for her to make the team over Maroney, as she has always had the capability, and even then she wouldn’t get the chance at the AA over Aly, probably. It would take Simone 2014 for London. She wouldn’t get there in just a year.

  4. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who saw that article and thought it was a pretty wild assumption (and bizarre way to write about the sport, to begin with). I love FiveThirtyEight for many things…but this was not one of them.

  5. So Simone was not the second youngest WAG medallist in Rio. Even if we are assuming individual medalists only, Kocian, Hernandez, and Tinkler are all younger than Simone. (If we add in team medallists, there are five more on the Russian and Chinese team younger than her.)

    The point still stands that Rio was a great Olympics for veterans.

    1. A few other ‘Star’ juniors: Ashley Priess, Bianca Fhlor, Shayla Worley, Natasha Kelly

  6. Simone was always being prepared for Rio 2016 which is why her upgrades in competition came far slower than her ability to do them. 2013 was more depleted than usual in terms of competition, so there was less pressure for Simone to compete at 2012 levels which was an exceptionally competitive year.

    Kyla Ross is an excellent example of someone who hit the birth year and pacing jackpot. She started with the Olympics and still had enough in the tank to have 2 very successful years after that before her growth spurt hindered her elite, but not NCAA, prospects.

    I would also add Larisa Iordache as someone who also was paced incredibly well. She was on the bronze winning 2012 team and then medaled on in 2013 and then in the AA in 2014 and 2015 before two freak injuries stopped her in 2016 and 2017.

    1. Please! Larisa was expecting to do much more from her own mouth personally at 2012. But she had plantar fasciitis , and had issues in London! Stop!

      1. Why is it that Romanians are thr first to discredit and bring their own gymnasts down? Larisa was well paced and her injuries weren’t really caused by pushing her too hard. She just wasn’t very lucky. She still accomplished a lot. Don’t be such a downer.

  7. It would also be interesting to analyse the trajectory from further back. In the UK, Kinsella, the Downies and Morgan were pretty much the top gymnasts in the country from about age 9 onwards. Whereas Harrold and Simm actually dropped out of the elite pathway, and re-entered it in their teens. I feel if it could be proven than those who are on top between age 9-14 don’t necessarily carry on that way, then it *might* make a difference to how they are trained. Also in those early years, the majority of the top gymnasts are born in the first half of the year and even now there is a skew towards elites born in January-June. Do the younger end get disheartened and quit?

  8. Yaaasss! Love putting two successful black women against each other! very Love and Hip Hop USAGYM edition. I dig it!

    Sounds about white!

    1. This is women’s artistic gymnastics. There are no men in this sport. Comparing women is literally the only possible thing to do. Simone, the best gymnast of all time, happens to be black, and the all-around champion from the year before she turned senior just happens to also be black. This article could have easily been Simone 2013 vs Viktoria 2012.

      Please take your social distancing more seriously and leave the internet. Don’t want to risk the lives of others, infecting them with your stupidity.

    2. 2013 Simone was relatively close to 2013 Kyla, within a point if both of them hit everything. Now I love Kyla more than either Simone or Gabby, but I don’t see 2013 Kyla within a point of 2012 Gabby unless Gabby has a major mistake. I think 2013 Simone (and 2013 Kyla) were pretty far removed from the top 2012ers. I suppose you can never trust beam though.

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