Gravity is Optional: The Science behind Simon Biles’ Mind-Blowing Acrobatics

April 8, 2020

This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and sign up to receive a free copy, here.

Simone Biles is one of those gymnasts who seems to be able to switch gravity on and off at will. Her toying with the laws of physics reached new heights at the 2019 US Gymnastics Championships when she became the first female ever to complete what’s known as the tripledouble. This involves rotating twice around an axis through her hips, and twisting three times around an axis down the middle of her body: a double back somersault with three twists, all while in the air for just over a second.

How on Earth did she achieve this? First of all she had to launch off the mat. For the tripledouble – the denouement of a longer move that saw her using the entire floor – it’s estimated she was in the air for a total of 1.18 seconds.

Secondly, she had to somersault twice. This required pushing off hard from the take-off point of the move (by this stage she had already completed two flips in the run-up so she had plenty of momentum), and then tucking in her arms and pulling her legs tight into her chest. Finally, there were the three twists. Simone had to start twisting while already in the throes of her first somersault. She managed this by pulling her left arm towards her belly button and keeping her right arm by the side of her body. The asymmetric arm positions created the twisting motion she needed.

“Once you’re up in the air, you don’t really have time to think about everything that’s happening,” Simone told USA Today about her winning move. “It all happens so quickly. It’s mainly just autopilot. It doesn’t feel like we’re way up there and gravity’s trying to pull us back down. In a way, it feels like we’re flying. But it’s very controlled.”

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