Simone Biles Shows She’s Not Just Easing Her Way Back

By now, it’s canon that Simone Biles is the greatest gymnast of all time. The debate over that status largely ended years ago, when she began pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the sport.

Her consistency is also unmatched. Since 2013, Biles has earned 32 world championship and Olympic medals, even after removing herself from several finals at the Tokyo Games in 2021 to safeguard her health. The question usually isn’t whether Biles will win but rather by how much.

The answer at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Sunday was a margin of 3.9 points over the silver medalist, Shilese Jones. Biles’s victory also meant that she broke a 90-year record by becoming the first American gymnast, woman or man, to win eight national all-around titles. And, at 26, she’s the oldest woman to ever win the event.

The national championships came just weeks after her return to elite competition following a two-year hiatus. She handily won a qualifying meet called the U.S. Classic earlier this month in Hoffman Estates, Ill. At the SAP Center on Sunday, among a crowded and talented field, Biles looked better than ever.

That perhaps could partially be chalked up to her attitude: “It’s just gymnastics,” she has told her younger teammates. Keeping with her relaxed demeanor, Biles hasn’t explicitly said that she is seeking to compete at the Paris Olympics next summer.

“Personal goals and stuff, I think sometimes it’s OK to keep it to our self, just so that nobody can throw it in your face — ‘Oh well, this was your goal and you didn’t hit it,’” Biles said after the competition. “I’m kind of at the age where it’s like, yo, just let me be at peace. So, one thing at a time.”

On Friday, the first night of competition, Biles was close to flawless. Her two wobbles on beam and a step out of bounds on floor exercise were overshadowed by her nearly sticking the landing on a Yurchenko double pike vault, a skill so daunting that no other woman and only a few men attempt it. The move — she launches herself into two flips with her legs straightened in a 90-degree angle — scored a weekend high of 15.700, even with a half-point deduction. She incurred the penalty because one of her coaches, Laurent Landi, had stood on the podium and beside the apparatus for her safety.

Biles didn’t display the double pike in warm-ups or in competition on Sunday, opting to show just one tough vault called a Cheng. Landi said that Biles stung an ankle on the skill on Friday and that there was no reason for her to repeat it just for show.

The other events — uneven bars, beam and floor exercise — were quintessential Biles: incredible height and speed, and a few small hops on landings. The loudest cheers of the competition, and a standing ovation, came when she clinched the championship with an impressive 15.400 on floor. Landi called it “the best floor routine I’ve ever seen her do.”

Biles’s sole bronze medal came on bars, which is her weakest event only because she is so phenomenal everywhere else. Her choice to forgo a second vault on the final day of competition meant she wasn’t eligible for a medal there.

Biles acknowledged that she had nerves going into every event, but that she felt capable and prepared because she was training more efficiently. “Age helps,” she said. “I can’t afford to, like, go in the gym and have all those hours.”

When asked what two words described her feelings after the championships, she decided on “happy,” and “hungry” for dinner. “Happy that it’s over,” she added, and “happy that I’m back out here competing.”

For the most invested gymnastics fans, 2023 has been a banner season so far. These championships included four members of the Tokyo team — Biles, Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles and Sunisa Lee — and two Tokyo alternates, Kayla DiCello and Leanne Wong. Jones, the silver medalist in the all-around at the 2022 world championships, and Skye Blakely, who placed fourth in the all-around on Sunday, are clearly hitting their stride.

At times on Sunday, it felt dizzying to keep track of every twist and flip because gymnasts perform on four apparatuses simultaneously. Jones, who recently said that she’s coming back from a torn labrum in her shoulder and from ankle issues, had a particularly strong beam routine to repeat as the U.S. all-around silver medalist. Wong, who competes in college for Florida, placed third and had some of her best landings ever on floor.

All of the top women could be among the five gymnasts and one alternate selected to represent the United States in just five weeks at the world championships in Belgium. A separate team selection camp will determine the U.S. delegation, meaning that gymnasts like Lee, Carey and Chiles, who made uncharacteristic mistakes this weekend, are still in contention for spots.

Lee, who is the reigning Olympic all-around champion and had recently competed for Auburn, is coming back from kidney problems and performed only on vault and beam. She fell off the beam on Friday but recovered on Sunday to end up third on the apparatus.

Carey, the floor exercise champion in Tokyo who competes for Oregon State, had falls on beam both nights and finished a distant 15th in the all-around. She finished third on vault behind Biles’s teenage training mate, Joscelyn Roberson, and Blakely. Chiles, a U.C.L.A. gymnast who also trains with Biles, had a tough evening, falling on bars and beam, but rallied on floor to finish fifth in the all-around.

Maggie Astor contributed reporting from New York.

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