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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Back in competition, it’s like Simone Biles never left

Simone Biles won the U.S. Classic, her first competition since the Tokyo Olympics.

By Maggie Astor

It did not look like Simone Biles had been gone.

Her full-twisting double-back dismount from the balance beam, hastily scrapped the last time she was seen in gymnastics competition two years ago, was back. She upgraded a tumbling pass with a casual air.

Oh, and yes: She finished the competition with a Yurchenko double pike, a vault not contemplated, much less competed, before Biles introduced it in 2021. She took a step to the side, out of bounds. It hardly mattered: It still received the highest score of the competition.

Perhaps it hardly needs saying that she won the competition, the U.S. Classic, which is normally a low-key qualification meet for the national championships but became a spectacle this year because of Biles’ presence.

The margin — 5 points over the second-place finisher, Leanne Wong — was normal by Biles’ standards, which are not anybody else’s. That margin between first and second was about the same as the margin between second and 17th.

In other words, it could have been any competition in any of the years, beginning in 2013, that Biles has dominated gymnastics. And that itself was remarkable — because, of course, it was Biles’ 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 this spring.)

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 USA Gymnastics anymore, to be done.

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

She started “playing around” in the gym last fall, she said after the competition, but she wasn’t planning a comeback at that point — just trying to stay relatively fit. It wasn’t until this year that she began training more seriously, and not until May — just three months ago — that she “really buckled down.”

“I’m not sure I even actually told them or we told each other,” she said, referring to her coaches, Cecile Canqueteau-Landi and Laurent Landi. “I think it was just like, we could kind of see it. Because then Laurent was like, ‘OK, we’re competing at Classics,’ and I was like: ‘Oh, I am. OK, got it.’”

“It was just kind of unspoken,” she added. “But we knew.”

All the while, she was surrounded by a core of friends and family and coaches who did not leak the news, 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 to capacity.

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

It included 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 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.

Roberson — who trains alongside Biles in Texas — dominated the first session of the competition in the early afternoon, earning the highest scores of the session on vault, beam and floor before falling on a release move that she had recently added to her bars routine. She nonetheless finished third and was cheerful in an interview after the competition, saying she saw it as “a practice meet” for the national championships.

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

“Right now, I think I should just embrace what happened today,” she said when asked after the competition whether returning to the Olympics was her goal. “I know everybody is just like — when you get married, they ask you when you’re having a baby. You come to Classics, they’re asking you about the Olympics. I think we’re just trying to take it one step at a time.”

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