Simone Biles preps for return to competition
Simone Biles looked sharp in her final preparations on the eve of her return to competitive gymnastics (Aug. 4)(AP video: Mike Householder)
HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — Once again, at long last, Simone Biles strode into an arena Saturday night. She flipped and flew and, perhaps most importantly, twisted. She was dominant, and she smiled. It looked like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.
“Did it look like I was having fun? Oh thank God,” Biles said afterward. “I thought I was going to (expletive) bricks, but that’s good.”
Yes, the proverbial GOAT of U.S. gymnastics is officially back.
Two years after bowing out of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics due to mental health issues, Biles made her competitive return at the U.S. Classic in a suburb of Chicago on Saturday night. And, to the surprise of no one, she began her comeback tour with a win.
In front of a packed crowd and a flock of NBC television cameras, Biles ran away from a field in which several of her closest U.S. rivals − including Olympic teammates Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles and Suni Lee − competed in only some of the four events. Her all-around score of 59.10 was a full five points clear of runner-up Leanne Wong − and more than two points higher than the total with which Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade claimed the 2022 world championship.
“I feel really good about where I am right now, mentally and physically,” Biles said. “I still think there are some things to work on, (mistakes) throughout the night in my routines. But for the first meet back, I would say it went pretty well.”
Most everyone who watched her at NOW Arena would probably say the same thing.
Exactly 732 days after her last competitive appearance, on the balance beam at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Biles reminded the world of her brilliance − and proved that it hasn’t dimmed. The 26-year-old star − who already has four gold medals, 19 world championships and 24 national titles to her name − was steady, then at times spectacular. She pulled off at least one of the skills that bears her name, and another − the famed Yurchenko double pike vault − that will become eponymous in the not-too-distant future.
“I competed at a high level, and watching her do this sport − it just amazes me,” NBC commentator Sam Peszek, who was on the 2008 Olympic team, said during the television broadcast Saturday night.
Biles said that, in her mind, it was always obvious she would return to competition after her experience in Tokyo, when she withdrew in shocking fashion from the team competition after the first event. She later revealed that she was suffering from the “twisties” − a sudden inability to sense and understand her body positioning while twisting through the air. She only competed in one event thereafter, winning bronze with a stripped-down routine on the balance beam.
“It was like a mental injury, you know?” she explained. “So something like that, with the proper work and the proper help, I knew I could come back and hopefully have a shot.”
Which, of course, begs the question: How does twisting feel to her now?
“I still get a little bit nervous, but I think it’s just subconscious,” Biles said. “Other than that, I know my body is capable and prepared and all of that stuff, so I just have to trust my training.”
After Tokyo, Biles didn’t talk about retiring, but she didn’t talk about returning to competition, either. Her personal life drew her focus. She got engaged, and then married, to now-Green Bay Packers safety Jonathan Owens. She launched a new clothing line with Athleta. And she became the youngest athlete to ever be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Then, earlier this year, something changed. Biles’ coach, Cecile Landi, said they got dinner and margaritas at a Mexican restaurant, and Biles expressed an interest in coming back to compete. After her wedding this spring, the training intensified.
“She really wants it for herself,” Landi said Friday. “She’s a married woman. She’s matured. She knows what she wants.”
Biles said she couldn’t recall a specific moment when she decided to compete again. She had returned to the gym in September, then started fiddling around with combinations of skills after the holidays. In time, Laurent Landi, Cecile’s husband, started giving her routines to work on. And at some point, Biles said, they all kind of just knew she would be back in an arena.
Along the way, Biles said she’s continued to meet with her therapist once a week. She believes she’s in better shape now, mentally and physically, than she was in 2021 ahead of Tokyo. And she has no plans to stop after one night back; National championships are later this month, with worlds in Antwerp, Belgium beginning in late September.
“At this point, nobody’s forcing me out here,” Biles said. “This is truly me.”
Contributing: Nancy Armour
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on social media @Tom_Schad.