Simone Biles, nimble power

When Simone Biles was winning her five Olympic medals in Rio 2016 – four of them gold – her body was using the laws of physics to defy gravity, but she didn’t think of it. Of course. Imagine how disastrous it would be for a gymnast to analyze Newton’s third law of motion while running full-speed toward the vault before she hits the springboard.

In an interview, she had said, “Once you get up there, you’re on autopilot because you’ve just done your routines so many times.” She was speaking of muscle memory: through repetition, her muscles had “learned” how to perform the complex tasks involved in her exercises, and so she’s now able to do them without thinking about the process.

 

Voice on Autopilot

All sports draw on muscle memory, and so do speech and voice use. Consider singing, for example: how unconceivable it should be that we’re able to hit the right notes if it weren’t because our muscles remember how to get there.

For someone who trains 32 hours per week in order to achieve her outworldly level of muscular skill, thus, muscle memory is crucial.

Accustomed to rely on motor learning – as opposed to intellectual learning –, then, Simone Biles responds to repetitive questions in interviews with the same efficiency as when she tumbles and flips around. She’s economic about voice: she gives it the minimum power that will make the listener hear her.

Again, she’s using the laws of physics in her benefit. In this case, by relying in the auto-sustained motion of her vocal folds: she applies minimal energy to create momentum, and lets inertia do the rest.

For that reason, her sentences tend to have flat intonation, with short pitch excursions [listen]. She interrupts her speech to breathe in whenever she feels the need, giving the impression she hadn’t planned what the best point to chop a sentence was [listen].

Like she’s talking on autopilot.

Extreme Nimbleness

But the fact that she uses her voice with frugality when being interviewed by TV professionals who all seem interested in the same issues doesn’t mean she can’t do otherwise.

On the contrary, her voice is as nimble as her body. Biles’s voice, when she lets it flow, soars to alpine heights (415 Hz [listen]), usually at the beginning of the sentences [listen]. Or it nosedives into the darkness of 29 Hz [listen]. The average female speaking voice floats around 200 Hz, typically ranging from 143 to 285 Hz.

I found an extreme example of the dynamism of the gymnast’s voice in the phrase “it might go crazy,” when she answered a question about how gymnastics is evolving. In the blink of a second, within the last syllable of the word ‘crazy,’ her voice hiked from an ultra-low 45 Hz to a high 289 Hz [listen]. And it took her larynx 0.2 seconds.

Flexible, nimble, and strong.

“I’m still normal”

Simone Biles’s smile shows the authentic joy that gymnastics makes her feel.

She also smiles often when she speaks, and the smile oozes through her voice, keeping her lips from contacting in some instances of ‘p,’ ‘m,’ or ‘b’ and transforming them into ‘f’ or ‘v.’

The p to f morphing we hear in this example [listen], when she pronounced “fizza” for “pizza,” and how she sometimes prolongs the last syllable of a sentence let us hear her youth.

When she speaks outside the learned answers, we hear that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. As if she doesn’t believe she is the greatest gymnast of all times.

She might still be normal, after all.


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