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On The Eve Of Her Comeback, ‘All Is Good’ For Simone Biles

by Blythe Lawrence

Simone Biles cheers on her teammates during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. (Photo by Getty Images)

The day Simone Biles admirers wondered if she would ever return is nearly upon us: almost exactly two years after Biles withdrew from the team and all-around finals at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 to protect her physical and mental health, her comeback is imminent.

As one-year-to-Paris celebrations ring out around the globe, Biles, 26, is making a discreet-as-possible competition comeback at this weekend’s Core Hydration Classic in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, where she is just one of the megastars on the Saturday start list. 

Others include reigning Olympic all-around champion Sunisa Lee, who is returning to elite competition after two seasons at Auburn and despite kidney problems that have impacted her training; defending Olympic floor exercise and world vault champion Jade Carey; and 2022 world team champions Jordan Chiles, Skye Blakely and Leanne Wong. Biles’s World Champions Centre teammates Joscelyn Roberson and Tiana Sumanasekera, and 2021 world all-around bronze medalist Kayla DiCello are also among the 39 women in contention for the title.

The Classic serves as the final qualifier to the U.S. Championships set for later this month in San Jose, California, but above that it is the Olympic hopefuls’ chance to see, be seen and test new routines at the outset of a compact runup to the world championships, which will be held Sept. 30-Oct. 8 in Antwerp, Belgium.

Female gymnastics stars returning to high-level competition after a post-Olympic hiatus is no longer the anomaly it was 15 years ago when one-and-done was the norm for a Games. Some of the sport’s most successful names — Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Chellsie Memmel, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and Biles herself — all had at least a year to rest and recover after successful-but-stressful Olympic turns at one point or another.

None were quite as high profile as Biles, whose near-decade of domination has yielded 19 world titles and seven Olympic medals, making her a legend in her own time. Heading into Tokyo, she was the face of the postponed Games despite having expressed discomfort both with the yearlong Olympic delay and with her sport, which she at one point felt ready to retire from.

The end came sooner than anyone expected. After a lackluster (by her standards) opening to her second Games, in the women’s team final on July 27, Biles missed on vault, executing a 1.5 twisting Yurchenko instead of her usual 2.5. After a brief consultation with her coaches, Biles withdrew from the rest of the team final, where the U.S. won silver after Chiles and Lee covered events Biles was scheduled to do.

Simone Biles poses with her bronze medal from the individual beam event during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 03, 2021 win Tokyo. (Photo by Getty Images)

In the aftermath, Biles revealed that she had been struggling with the “twisties,” a mental block that causes gymnasts to lose their sense of orientation in the air, a condition best remedied by returning to the basics. Having qualified for every individual final, Biles did not compete in the all-around, or on vault, floor exercise or uneven bars — the former three all being events she had been heavily favored to win. On the final day of gymnastics, she won balance beam bronze, modifying her dismount so she would not have to twist. She has not done a competitive routine in public since.

In stark contrast to the Tokyo buildup, this return has been as low-key as possible. There have been no social media announcements, no press calls, no “Today” show appearances and no documentaries recording her daily life in the gym. The closest Biles has come to addressing her return was a Q&A posted to her Instagram story last week.

“I’m fine. I’m twisting again. No worries. All is good,” she wrote.

All does appear to be well in Bilesland; having married Green Bay Packers safety Jonathan Owens in Cabo San Lucas in May, Biles crushed it in a behind-closed-doors competition at a national team camp in July, winning the all-around by three and a half points over Roberson. She has credited large crowds at previous meets with lifting her up, and in Hoffman Estates, she’s guaranteed to have a big one; tickets sold out within 24 hours of the announcement that she would be competing.

Things are far less cut-and-dry for the men, where the U.S. is trying to fill a Brody Malone-sized hole in its team. The 2022 world high bar champion sustained a leg injury at a meet in Germany this spring and his recovery is likely to extend into next year. 

Without Malone, several gymnasts could contend in Sunday’s competition, including 2020 Olympians Yul Moldauer and Shane Wiskus and 2022 world team members Asher Hong, Donnell Whittenburg and Colt Walker. 

Paul Juda, a massive talent injured before last year’s U.S. Championships, is back in the mix too, as is Stanford’s Riley Loos, whose growth and improvement over the past two years might have put him on the path to a world championships.

The Americans also have pommel horse specialist Stephen Nedoroscik, the 2021 world champion on the apparatus, and a man capable of posting world-class scores on an event where the Americans have often struggled.

Unlike the women, the men will have more skin in the game at the world championships, because they have yet to qualify a full team to the Paris Games and Antwerp is the last chance, though their results over the past few years indicate that shouldn’t be a problem.