Publication date : 28/12/2018
It has to start with Simone Biles. Even Belgium’s Nina Derwael, after a year in which she won her nation’s first ever Artistic Gymnastics World Championships gold medal, cannot stop her mind wandering towards the record-setting superstar.
“She is just such an incredible gymnast, she has always been an idol for me,” Derwael said of Biles, who returned to the global stage with a bang in 2018, winning four golds, one silver and a bronze at Doha 2018 to take her career tally to a never-seen-before total of 14 World Championship gold medals.
“Just to be out there and able to compete with her was already an amazing thing to do, a real honour,” Derwael added.
Biles, who was making her comeback to international competition following a 12-month break, grabbed the headlines in Doha in a way only she can. The 21-year-old stepped up and claimed the All-around, Floor, Vault and team titles as well as an Uneven Bars silver and a Balance Beam bronze as she became the first gymnast in 31 years to win a medal in all six World Championship events.
‘Pearl of Doha’ proves no obstacle
Global coverage of this remarkable feat reached fever pitch when it emerged that Biles had been rushed to hospital on the eve of her gold rush with what turned out to be a vast kidney stone – which she nicknamed her ‘Pearl of Doha’.
“Most people would have been in bed and not coming out,” Derwael said. “And yet she did four All-around competitions (qualification, team finals, All-around final and all four individual apparatus finals). It’s unbelievable. If I have to do four All-arounds I am going to be dead and she did it with a kidney stone. It is not human.”
Derwael’s assessment was shared by many, but the modest 18-year-old was one of just three gymnasts to get the better of Biles in Doha. While China’s gold medallist Liu Tingting and debutante extraordinaire Anne-Marie Padurariu, from Canada, sneaked in front after a rare error-strewn Balance Beam display from the supreme USA gymnast, Derwael beat Biles by a relative mile on Uneven Bars. Even if it is yet to truly sink in.
“I never thought it was going to be possible to beat her at something because she is so great,” Derwael laughed. “It’s really weird.”
Beat her she did, as she powered to a score of 15.200, half-a-point clear of her hero. Not only was the result Belgium’s first ever gold on the world stage, it was also the nation’s best finish since the inaugural World Championships in 1903.
Derwael learns to love favourite tag
The teenager is most proud of the fact that she achieved this historic feat while performing under the added weight of being the favourite.
“When I am doing an interview and they show a video of the exercises then all the memories of the stress I had on that day come back,” she said.
“It was pretty tough because everyone was expecting me to win. It was difficult to focus on myself and not think about the fact everyone was thinking I should win.”
The teenager was favourite on Uneven Bars for good reason. First, she had already won on the apparatus in Doha’s Aspire Arena in 2018, having triumphed at March’s World Cup event. And second, she had faced down the daunting challenge of defending a major title, winning the European Uneven Bars crown for the second successive time when the 2018 championships took place in Glasgow, UK, in August.
“It really helped with my confidence. You know after a result like that that it is possible and that is the first thing you need, to believe in yourself,” said Derwael, who also won silver on Balance Beam in Glasgow. “It meant at Worlds I could put everything to the side, because I had already confirmed that I could do it.”
New names herald bright future
Alongside Derwael’s dominance, the European and World Championships highlighted the emergence of a host of dynamic, new talent.
France’s Melanie de Jesus dos Santos for one will not forget 2018 in a hurry. The 18-year-old, who hails from Martinique, became the European All-around and Floor champion before going on to finish sixth in both disciplines at the World Championships.
But perhaps the most eye-catching result of the year came courtesy of little-known Mexican Alexa Moreno. The 24-year-old battled her way through five world championships to finally reach the podium in Doha and her bronze on Vault may just mark a major step change for Gymnastics in her country.
“It’s really great for the sport to see these smaller countries working so hard and getting success,” Derwael said. The world and European champion knows what she is talking about as her efforts have fuelled a dramatic escalation in media coverage of Gymnastics in Belgium.
Eyes starting to turn towards Tokyo 2020
The teenager looks certain to maintain this magical momentum. Belgium’s finest travelled to the final World Cup event of the year, held in Cottbus, Germany in November and returned home with her luggage once again bulging.
Not only did Derwael win both the Uneven Bars and Balance Beam titles but she also took a significant leap towards securing her place at Tokyo 2020. The Individual Apparatus World Cup was the first of eight such events taking place November 2018 – March 2020 offering, for the first time, individuals the chance to qualify for the next Olympic Games by collecting points for high finishes.
But while Derwael’s star is undoubtedly on the rise the final word must be about you-know-who.
“I think to beat Biles in the All-around is pretty much impossible,” Derwael said as she looked forward to 2019. “On the apparatus, she is just so good as well. To have a chance she has to make a mistake. She is that good.”