HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. (AP) — Simone Biles spent two years trying to distance herself from those strange days in Tokyo and all the outside noise that came along with it.
She dove into therapy and slowly — very slowly — returned to training even though she wavered on whether she was really up for a third Olympics and all of the pressure and expectations that come with it when you’re considered the greatest of all time.
It wasn’t until mid-spring that she committed to training seriously after talking about it over margaritas with her coaches. It wasn’t until late June that she committed to Saturday night’s U.S. Classic. And it wasn’t until she stepped onto the podium and heard the shrieks of support and the sea of handmade signs that the noise she’d been grappling with for 732 days finally fell silent.
She was back in her safe space. Back in front of a crowd. Back in control. Back to being the Simone Biles — albeit a more mature, married, 26-year-old version — who has spent a decade redefining her sport.
Confidence growing with every rotation, Biles soared to victory in her first meet since the Tokyo Games. Her all-around score of 59.100 was five points better than runner-up Leanne Wong. And made all the more remarkable by the fact she didn’t really pour herself into preparing until after her wedding to Green Bay Packers safety Jonathan Owens in late April.
“I feel really good about where I am right now, mentally and physically,” Biles said. “I still think there are some things to work on in my routines, but for the first meet back, I would say it went pretty well. I’m very shocked. Surprised.”
She posted the best score on three of four events, turning what is typically a tune-up meet for the U.S. Championships into a showcase that she remains — when she’s at or near her best — a singular force in her sport.
The only time she seemed out of place at the NOW Arena was when she was introduced. She scrambled from one side of the floor to the other, unsure of where she was supposed to go.
The moment passed. Minutes later she raised her hands and saluted the judges. Then it was the same as it ever was for the most decorated female gymnast in history.
Rocking a black-and-white bedazzled leotard and a silicone wedding band she bought from Amazon to wear while she competes, Biles electrified a packed house that roared with every spin, every flip, and yes, twist.
While she admitted she is still a little nervous while doing the twisting elements in her routines, she certainly looked comfortable during two hours that offered a taste of what could come in the run-up to Paris next summer.
Wearing No. 231 and sporting — at least before she began competing — a necklace bearing “Owens” in tribute to her husband, she seemed equal parts relaxed and energized.
She began on uneven bars, not far from a sign featuring a goat (a symbol for “Greatest of All Time”) that read “Simone Freaking Biles.” She wasn’t perfect, nearly stalling near the end of her routine. She muscled up and stayed on and when she hit her dismount, she cut her eyes off to the side as if to say “sheesh.”
Her score of 14.000 was the third best of the competition and a signal of things to come. She was as solid and steady as ever on balance beam, where she won a bronze in Tokyo after a week of uncertainty, a medal she’s described as one of the sweetest of her career.
While never officially closing the door on Paris, at one point she was convinced her career was over. She’s spent most of the last 24 months preparing for her wedding and planning the rest of her life.
Still, the lure of the gym tugged at her, though she’s taking a more muted approach to her comeback than in 2018 or in the run-up to Tokyo in 2021.
At the moment, she’s letting her gymnastics do most of the talking. And it spoke loud and clear.
She was dynamic on floor exercise, where her tumbling passes have long been showstoppers. While she and her coaches have tweaked her routines a bit to better take advantage of the sport’s updated Code of Points, she still does some of the most challenging gymnastics in the sport typically with seemingly effortless ease.
Biles kept all three of her tumbling passes on the floor inbounds, something that was a problem at times in 2021. Her score of 14.900 included a start value of 6.8, a massive amount of difficulty. No other athlete, many of whom grew up idolizing her, had a start value higher than 5.9.
She finished with a Yurchenko double-pike vault, a roundoff onto the table followed by two back flips with her hands clasped behind her knees. It’s a vault she toyed with in 2021 hoping to pull off in Tokyo.
It never happened. It still might in Paris. She hopped a little bit after landing as the arena exploded, her 15.400 more than a full point better than any of the other 30-plus athletes managed.
The Classic is considered a warm-up of sorts. The U.S. Championships are later this month, with the world championships coming in October and the Olympics less than a year out.
She’s trying not to get too far ahead. Making it a point to enjoy what she called the “little wins.”
“I knew I could come back and hopefully have a shot,” she said. “It’s just about really taking care of my body right now. So that’s what we’re to. It’s working.”
There is plenty of time to refine things. To expand. To build. Biles’ all-around score Saturday was higher than what she posted at the same meet in 2018. What followed back then was two years of historic dominance.
More may be on the way.