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This Time Around, Simone Biles Is Doing It For Herself

by Chrös McDougall

Simone Biles celebrates after winning gold in the floor exercise event during the 2023 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 27, 2023 in San Jose, Calif. (Photo by Getty Images)

There was a moment Sunday, just after Simone Biles stuck the landing on another impossibly difficult tumbling pass, when the gymnast smiled.

That was also around the time her coach, Laurent Landi, knew he was seeing something special.

A year ago, Biles was happily removed from competitive gymnastics and secure in her legacy as the sport’s most decorated athlete. As recently as two months ago, that status still applied, at least officially.

Then, with a low-key announcement in late June, her break was over.

Biles emphatically returned at the Core Hydration Classic earlier this month in the Chicago area. At this past weekend’s Xfinity U.S. Gymnastics Championships in San Jose, California, Biles wasn’t just back but maybe better than ever.

On Friday, the first night of competition, Biles flew halfway to the SAP Center rafters and then stuck the landing on her unprecedented Yurchenko double pike vault. By her last routine on Sunday, which amounted to a victory lap in her signature event, Biles flowed through her floor routine with such precision that she couldn’t help but smile.

“When you feel good about yourself and you feel you’re under control, then it’s where you can shine,” said Landi, who coaches Biles with his wife Cecile Landi. “She started to smile again in her routine. Before she could not do it because she was thinking about what she was doing.”

The result, according to Laurent Landi, was “the best floor routine I’ve ever seen her do.”

In another version of this story, Biles could have retired from gymnastics in 2016 as the greatest athlete the sport has ever seen. Instead, she returned in 2018 and raised her level even higher.

Now, at age 26, she might just be doing that again.

At the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games in 2021, Biles withdrew from five finals due to “the twisties.” All indications were that she was retiring, at age 24, and with a combined 32 Olympic and world championships medals to her name.

Instead, Biles all but guaranteed a sixth trip to the world championships with her performance in San Jose. Her two-day score of 118.45 easily clinched her eighth U.S. title, moving her past Alfred Jochim for the most ever. Jochim, by the way, won his last one in 1933. The win also made Biles the oldest woman to claim the all-around crown, besting Linda Metheny-Mulvihill, who won at age 24 in 1971. Including her apparatus wins, Biles now holds a record 27 U.S. titles.

And it’s not just that Biles is winning. It’s also how she’s winning.

Simone Biles smiles while walking off the floor after completing her routine during the 2023 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 25, 2023 in San Jose, Calif. (Photo by Team USA)

The Yurchenko double pike vault has never been tried in an international women’s competition. Biles stuck the landing, earning an outrageous 9.8 execution score out of a possible 10. Only one other routine all weekend scored as high as 9.4 in execution.

On floor exercise, an event Biles has won six times in six tries at the Olympics and world championships, her combination of near-flawless tumbling and unheard-of difficulty left her nearly two points clear of runner-up Kaliya Lincoln.

“Literally, I laugh as she finishes her floor routine with a double layout,” said Chellsie Memmel, a 2008 Olympian who is now one of the U.S. women’s high-performance leaders.

“I’m just like, (that’s) not human. She’s amazing.”

Biles’ scores of 15.7 on Day 1 vault and 15.4 on Day 2 floor were easily the biggest in San Jose, with Shilese Jones’ Day 2 bars being the closest at 15.0.

And of the 216 routines performed in San Jose, 21 earned a difficulty score of at least 6.0. Biles accounted for seven of them.

What’s different about this time around, though, is that as easy as Biles still makes the sport look, now we know it’s not — a fact driven in at the Tokyo Games where Biles came in as a favorite to win as many as five gold medals and left with a team silver, a balance-beam bronze and four “did not starts.”

The breaks from gymnastics, Biles said, have been good for her. In 2017, she was able to take time to discover herself as a young adult while also beginning the healing process after being sexually abused by a former team doctor. This time she escaped the pressure that had been weighing her down pre-Tokyo and leaned into her relationship with Jonathan Owens, a safety for the Green Bay Packers, whom she married at a destination wedding in May. As far as anyone knew, Biles’ gymnastics career was over.

Then she quietly slipped back into the gym.

Simone Biles smiles during warm ups during the 2023 U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Aug. 27, 2023 in San Jose, Calif. (Photo by Getty Images)

After what happened in Tokyo, the redemption storyline plays almost too easily. If next year’s Paris Olympics are the goal, though, Biles isn’t saying so. Truth is, she wasn’t sure she wanted to come back as recently as a few weeks ago. So if she decides she wants to go for Paris, she’ll decide that on her own terms, then let us know when she’s ready.

“I’m trying to move a little bit differently this year than I have in the past,” she said. “I think it’s working so far, so I’m going to keep it secretive.”

Instead, she’s focusing on “training smarter,” and leaning on her coaches and teammates to keep her focused on what matters and away from the noise that doesn’t.

“Sometimes I feel like I still do lack in some areas that we need to go back to the gym to work on, but I put all of my faith in Cecile and Laurent,” Biles said. “Also, I think, with the help of my teammates just pushing me in the gym and telling me, ‘It’s OK, you can do it.’ Because there are some days where I’m in the gym, and I’m like, bro, I think this age is kicking my (butt). But they’re like, ‘No, you’re fine. You can do it.’ ”

The next step for Biles, and the rest of the U.S. women, will be a selection camp next month in Texas to determine the five-person team headed to the world championships, which starts Sept. 30 in Antwerp, Belgium. Biles, barring injury, is a lock to make the team.

It’s a position she never envisioned a year ago, and even this weekend felt like a “fever dream,” she said. Whether that dream lasts another few weeks, another year or maybe even longer, Biles is here to enjoy the ride.

“Every time I do something, they’re like, ‘You stuck every pass!’ I was like, ‘I did?’” Biles said. “Because I’m in the moment, but I’m also like, it just doesn’t feel real for some reason.

“I just seriously can’t believe I’m out here competing again. I just really can’t. I’m so proud of myself for that.”