HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — On the final rotation of the first meet of her return to competitive gymnastics, four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles stood at the end of the vaulting runway inside Chicago’s NOW Arena and paused. It was no secret what she was about to do. She’d done it several times already in warmups and podium training. It was all over social media. But this time, it was for a score.
Biles gripped her right hand with her left, where a thin wedding band she’d purchased online to wear during competitions glistened with the reminder of how far she’d come since pulling out of five events at the Tokyo Olympics with a mental block known as the “twisties.”
She took a deep breath and took off running. Then she did something no other woman has done. She landed a Yurchenko double pike, a vault she first did in competition at this event two years ago, and clinched the all-around title at the Core Hydration Classic.
Two years after Tokyo, after what could have been the end of her elite career, Biles was an all-around champion once again.
The eruption from the crowd when she landed that vault made the arena feel more like a Taylor Swift concert than a gymnastics meet, seismic activity included. The glitter-soaked poster-board signs and dads in “Simone Skye Shilese Jordan Konnor Zoe” T-shirts only added to the vibe.
If there was any question about whether the 26-year-old was serious about her return to elite gymnastics, those questions are gone. Biles not only won the meet, she also took the beam, floor and vault titles and finished an unthinkable five points ahead of silver medalist Leanne Wong, who won this event last year. Biles is back.
Here are four key takeaways from Saturday night’s meet.
Biles is ready. Now.
Traditionally, gymnasts view the U.S. Classic as a tuneup meet. It’s a final chance to qualify into U.S. Gymnastics Championships in San Jose on Aug. 24-27, shake out the jitters and perform in front of a crowd and a panel of judges. “At Classics, usually you’re like 50, 60 percent and then at Championships, like 80, and then hopefully at worlds, you’re 100 percent,” Biles said Saturday. “But I feel more prepared than at any other Classics I’ve been to. I think I’m in better shape than I was in 2021, mentally and physically.”
Gymnasts like Biles, who hadn’t already qualified to the U.S. Championships, needed to put up scores on only two events Saturday to qualify. The assumption before the weekend was that Biles would do the minimum. None of her Tokyo teammates competed in more than two events, and if Biles didn’t, no one would knock her for it. She has been in the gym since September but didn’t truly commit to a return until a few months ago. “I was working on the wedding, so after May, we really buckled down,” Biles said of her April marriage to NFL safety Jonathan Owens.
Then she showed up at practice Friday and landed two skills few other women in the world perform. So, it was not surprising when her name appeared in every rotation Saturday. It was, however, a surprise that after two years off, after dealing with all she went through in Tokyo and returning to the gym admittedly cautious and uncertain, she is already — or still? — the best gymnast in the world. Right now. And that’s not an opinion. It’s quantifiable.
Biles’ 59.1 all-around score Saturday was more than two points higher than what Rebeca Andrade scored at the 2022 world championships to take the all-around title. And Biles didn’t do her hardest routines in competition in Chicago. Imagine what she can score at the world championships in October if she does.
Sunisa Lee showed signs of greatness, but has a tough road ahead because of her health.
The reigning Olympic all-around champion only competed on beam and vault and warmed up on bars, her signature event. She finished second behind Biles on beam and was emotional after her performance.
“I’m proud of myself for pushing through,” Lee said. “I got over the fear and the doubt and let myself have fun.”
Like Biles, this meet marked Lee’s return to elite competition, but it signified something greater for her. This spring, during her second season at the University of Auburn, Lee was diagnosed with kidney disease and missed the remainder of the season as she worked with her doctors to figure out a treatment plan. Her diagnosis and the medication she takes to treat it make it difficult for her to train at the level she did previously, and she said there have been times in the past few months when she was unsure if she would do gymnastics again.
So, scores aside, sticking a beam routine Saturday meant a lot to her.
“Thinking about not being able to do gymnastics was emotional,” she said. “To be back feels surreal. It was a big confidence boost. I didn’t think I would score that high on beam and then I feel like on my vault, I’ll be ready to do a double full at Championships.”
Their Tokyo teammates aren’t ready yet. But they will be.
Remember that thing Biles said about being 50 percent at the Classic? That’s how most of the country’s top gymnasts looked Saturday, if not a bit better. That’s no reason to worry. It’s a far bigger surprise that Biles is as good as she is right now than that the others aren’t at their world-class best.
Jordan Chiles, Jade Carey and Tokyo alternates Leanne Wong and Kayla DiCello are all making the transition back from NCAA gymnastics to elite. And because they are the first group of gymnasts in the NIL era to compete in both arenas, there is no road map for them to follow. It will take them time to dust the cobwebs off their elite skills. But don’t count any of them out. The U.S. Championships in three weeks will be a far better measuring stick.
Other gymnasts impressed this weekend.
Skye Blakely, 18, took the uneven bars title, and 16-year-old Kaliya Lincoln finished second behind Biles on floor. Both do beautiful gymnastics, could continue to make a splash in the run-up to Paris and are coached by Yevgeny Marchenko, who coached 2004 Olympic all-around champion Carly Patterson.
Blakely, a member of the 2022 world championships team that won gold, did only three events here, but could have placed second all-around behind Biles with an easily achievable 11.35 on floor. Two years ago, Blakely qualified for U.S. Olympic trials, but ruptured the UCL ligament in an elbow and was forced to withdraw.