On the Competition Floor, It’s Like Simone Biles Never Left

On the Competition Floor, It’s Like Simone Biles Never Left

It did not look like Simone Biles had been gone.

In warm-ups before the U.S. Classic in Illinois on Saturday evening, her tumbling passes were explosive, one of them even upgraded from the last time she competed two years ago. And she brought back the Yurchenko double pike — a vault not contemplated, much less competed, before Biles introduced it in 2021.

She nearly stuck it cold, and the noise from the sold-out arena was deafening.

As the clock ticked down to the start of the actual competition at 7 p.m. Central time, it seemed like it could have been any competition in any of the years, beginning in 2013, that Biles has dominated the sport. And that itself was remarkable — because, of course, it was Biles’s first competition back after two years during which it was not at all clear that such a day would happen.

In Tokyo in July 2021, Biles withdrew a quarter of the way through the Olympic team final after losing her bearings in midair on her vault. It was the first public manifestation of a block she had been struggling with, known in gymnastics as “the twisties.”

She went on to withdraw from the all-around final — where she had been favored to become the first woman to win two Olympic all-around titles since Czechoslovakia’s Vera Caslavska in 1964 and 1968 — and from three of the four apparatus finals. She came back for the last event of the Games, the beam final, in which she won a bronze medal.

And then, that was it — possibly the end of the competitive career of the woman widely considered to be the greatest gymnast of all time. She went on vacation. She went to therapy. She got engaged to Jonathan Owens, a defensive back for the Green Bay Packers. (They married in May.)

Just before the Tokyo Games, Biles had told The New York Times that she couldn’t wait for the Olympics to end — to not have to train anymore, to not have to deal with U.S.A. Gymnastics anymore, to be done.

And then she decided she wasn’t done after all.

She started training seriously again, surrounded by a core of friends and family and coaches who did not leak the news for months, even as speculation soared among fans who had seen her in the background of teammates’ training videos.

On Saturday, thousands of those fans packed the NOW Arena in Hoffman Estates, Ill., to watch Biles compete again.

The emotional weight of Biles’s comeback created a strange juxtaposition: all eyes on one woman, even though, far beyond Biles, the field for this year’s U.S. Classic is unusually stacked.

It includes not one, but four members of the Tokyo team — Biles, Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles and Sunisa Lee, the reigning Olympic all-around champion — and two Tokyo alternates, Kayla DiCello and Leanne Wong. And it included Joscelyn Roberson, a 17-year-old who would probably be making headlines as the next big thing if so many of the last cycle’s big things were not still at the top of their game.

During warm-ups a couple of hours before the competition began, Biles seemed happy, even relaxed. At one point, she took a break to joke with reporters that she might not be able to do a compulsory routine — a standardized, relatively low-difficulty set that gymnasts used to be required to compete alongside their full-difficulty routines, to emphasize clean execution — because some simple skills are beyond the woman who can do a Yurchenko double pike.

She seemed to be there because she wanted to be there.

Next, in just three weeks, will be the national championships in San Jose, Calif. And perhaps, in almost exactly a year, the Olympic Games in Paris — if she chooses.

Because Biles is very much in control now.

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