Simone Shines, Asher Rises And Five Other Takeaways From Gymnastics Nationals
by Chrös McDougall
Simone Biles doesn’t remember much from the weekend she won her first national gymnastics title a decade ago in Hartford, Connecticut.
The 26-year-old didn’t initially remember a lot about her performance at her eighth national championships either, calling this weekend’s Xfinity U.S. Gymnastics Championships in San Jose, California, a “fever dream.”
When she gets home to Texas and runs the tape, it might feel like watching reruns.
Biles, already the most decorated gymnast on the international level, returned from a two-year break to separate herself in the domestic record books as well. With her two-day score of 118.45, Biles ran away with her eighth all-around title, while also claiming wins on balance beam and floor. She might have won vault, too, but eschewed a required second vault while nursing an ankle injury on Sunday.
Among the milestones wrapped into those wins, Biles now:
- Has the most U.S. all-around titles of any gymnast, man or woman, after breaking her deadlock with Alfred Jochim (1925-30 and 1933).
- Is the oldest U.S. women’s all-around champ, surpassing Linda Metheny-Mulvihill, who won at age 24 in 1971.
- Owns a record 27 U.S. titles across all events.
All told, it was a remarkable comeback for Biles, who also owns 32 Olympic and world championships records, but who hadn’t competed since the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021.
While Biles’ coronation on Sunday continued her historic career, a night earlier 19-year-old Asher Hong became the youngest U.S. men’s champ in a generation, and the Stanford sophomore will now compete in his second world championships starting Sept. 30 in Antwerp, Belgium. There, he’ll lead a young team hoping to get the Americans back on the podium for the first time since 2014.
With some time to reset now after a busy weekend in San Jose, here are seven takeaways from this year’s national championships.
It was hardly imaginable that Simone Biles could have improved upon her 2013-16 quad, and yet that’s what she did upon returning to the sport again in 2018. Following another post-Olympic break, Biles is already raising the bar again, most notably with her Yurchenko double pike vault on Friday. Barring injury she’ll be a heavy favorite to add to her medal count in Antwerp. This time she’s making sure to enjoy it.
Early in her career, such as at her U.S. championships debut in 2013, Biles was so dialed in that she sometimes “blacked out” in the moment. Now, she says, she and her teammates are being deliberate about celebrating their successes. “Just so that in a couple of years we can remember those,” she said.
Similarly, Biles is making a point of keeping her goals close to the vest this time around. That includes not yet revealing if she even plans to continue competing next year and go for a third Olympics in Paris.
“I like to keep (my goals) personal, just so that I know what I’m aiming for,” Biles said. “I think it’s better that way.”
With two-time defending champ Brody Malone out injured, the men’s field was wide open. In the end it was Hong who stepped up, in the process becoming the youngest U.S. men’s champ since Tim Ryan 1989. He’s also the first teen to win the men’s title since John Orozco in 2012.
Hong, of Tomball, Texas, posted the highest score on both nights and stayed consistent while his top rivals recorded falls. A former star at the junior level, Hong arrived at the senior level last year and got all the way to the world championships, where he finished sixth in the all-around. Now he’ll be looked upon as a leader for this year’s team, which includes three first-time world championships members.
Shilese Jones, last year’s U.S. and world runner-up, hadn’t competed yet in 2023 as she recovered from injuries. Don’t worry about it. The 21-year-old from the Seattle area was easily the second-best woman in San Jose, finishing 3.9 points behind Simone Biles but 3.45 ahead of third-place Leanne Wong. As expected, Jones shined the brightest on the uneven bars, where her winning two-day score of 29.9 included a 15.0 on Sunday. Barring injury, she should be headed to Antwerp with Biles.
For the rest of the women, the Sept. 18-21 selection camp in Katy, Texas, will be pivotal. The defending champion U.S. team can bring five women to Antwerp, and competition for those spots is going to be fierce. After Biles and Jones, Wong, a 2020 Olympic alternate, Skye Blakely and 2020 Olympian Jordan Chiles rounded out the top-five all-around spots in San Jose, and each has a strong case for making the worlds team. But with such strong depth among all-arounders, the team could elect to bring a gymnast or two in specialist roles.
Kaliya Lincoln finished second on floor and Olympian Suni Lee took third on beam, while Joscelyn Roberson won vault. Zoe Miller came off the bars on Friday and finished a disappointing 17th in her signature event, but her scoring potential should keep her in the mix. Don’t sleep on Jade Carey, either. Though not at her best this weekend, she’s the reigning Olympic champion on floor and the reigning world champion on vault.
Unlike the women’s team, the five men headed to Antwerp learned their fate in San Jose. Joining Hong on the team are Olympian Yul Moldauer, Khoi Young of Stanford, and Michigan teammates Paul Juda and Fred Richard, who are also winners of the past two NCAA all-around titles. Hong, Richard and Young are all 20 or younger, while Juda, Richard and Young will all be in their first world championships.
For the U.S. men, the goal is to find their way back onto the podium. Their last major team medal was a bronze at the 2014 world championships. Not having Malone, an Olympian and last year’s fourth-place all-arounder at worlds, makes that harder in 2023, but with such a young team this year’s competition should provide valuable experience.
“Now it’s all younger guys,” Richard said. “But we’re definitely showing that there’s no gap in this in the skill with us being younger, which is good because in the future we’ll be a lot stronger.”
A few notable names missed out on Antwerp and instead will compete at October’s Pan American Games in Chile. That group includes 2021 pommel horse world champion Stephen Nedoroscik, 2020 Olympian Shane Wiskus and the veteran Donnell Whittenburg. They’ll be joined by two collegians in Cameron Bock (Michigan) and Colt Walker (Stanford).
Two Olympic all-around champions had never faced off at the U.S. championships. That changed this year when Biles (2016) and Suni Lee (2020) met in San Jose. It wasn’t exactly a showdown, though. While Biles looks as strong as ever, Lee has been dealing with a kidney ailment that shortchanged her second (and final) collegiate season at Auburn and has limited her training in the months since. The Minnesotan returned to elite competition at the Core Hydration Classic earlier this month and competed in just two events both there and in San Jose.
Though clearly not at full strength yet, Lee’s potential could be seen on beam, especially on Sunday when she scored 14.2. She also was solid in her Yurchenko full vaults each night. While Lee could be considered for the worlds team just for her beam, her overall progress is coming along nicely, according to U.S. technical lead Chellsie Memmel. “I’m proud of what she’s able to do while dealing with everything that she’s going through,” Memmel said.
After a hiccup in 2022, the veteran Yul Moldauer is back on this year’s worlds team. The 2017 U.S. champ had been a fixture at major championships, including the Tokyo Olympics, but struggled some last year and traveled to the world championships as the alternate instead. Long known for his technically precise gymnastics, Moldauer has been working to bump up his difficulty in recent years. The Colorado native was right on Hong’s heels on Thursday but falls in high bar and pommel horse on Saturday dropped him to fifth. Still, the so-called “hype man” ended the night on a better note, as teammates delivered a cake to celebrate his 27th birthday. The next day, he learned he was going back to the world championships.