Simone Biles and her coach Laurent Landi after Biles did a Yurchenko double pike vault on her way to winning the all-around in her first competition in two years. EPA/ALEX WORBLEWSKI
HOFFMAN ESTATES, ILLINOIS — Simone Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics, stopped at the end of the vaulting runway in Chicago’s NOW Arena on the last rotation of her first meet back in the competition. It was her first meeting back since she had been away for two years. Everyone knew what she was going to do. She had done it several times during warmups and training on the podium. It was all over the internet. This time, though, it was for a point.
Biles held her right hand with her left. A thin wedding band she had bought online to wear during competitions reminded her of how far she had come since the Tokyo Olympics when she had to drop out of five events because of a mental block called “the twisties.”
She took a big breath and started to run. Then she did something that no woman had ever done before. She did a Yurchenko double pike vault, which she did for the first time in a competition at the Core Hydration Classic two years ago, and won the all-around title.
Two years after Tokyo, when her career could have ended, Biles was again a champion in every event.
When she landed that vault, the crowd went crazy, and the whole arena shook like it was a Taylor Swift concert instead of a gymnastics meet. The “Simone Skye Shilese Jordan Konnor Zoe” T-shirts worn by the dads and the glitter-covered poster board signs only added to the atmosphere.
If there was any doubt about how serious the 26-year-old was about getting back into elite gymnastics, those doubts are gone. Biles not only won the meet but also the titles for beam, floor, and vault. She finished an unbelievable five points ahead of silver medalist Leanne Wong, who won this event last year. Biles has returned.
Here are four essential lessons from the meeting on Saturday night.
Biles is all set. Now.
Gymnasts have always thought of the U.S. Classic as a warm-up meet. It’s the last chance to qualify for the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, which will be held Aug. 24-27 in San Jose. Competitors can shake off their nerves and show off their skills in front of a crowd and a panel of judges. “At Classics, you’re usually at 50–60%; at Championships, you’re at 80–90%; and hopefully at Worlds, you’re at 100%,” Biles said on Saturday. “But I feel more ready for this Classics than I did for any other Classics I’ve been to. I think I’m in better mental and physical shape than in 2021.”
Gymnasts like Biles, who hadn’t already qualified for the U.S. Championships, only needed to do well in two events on Saturday to qualify. Before the weekend, most people thought Biles would do the bare minimum. None of her Tokyo teammates competed in more than two events, and if Biles didn’t, no one would criticize her for it. Since September, she’s been going to the gym but didn’t decide to return until a few months ago. “I was working on the wedding, so after May, we got down to business,” Biles said of her April wedding to NFL safety Jonathan Owens.
Then she came to practice on Friday and made two moves that few women can do. So it wasn’t strange that her name came up in every rotation on Saturday. It was a surprise that she is already or is still the best gymnast in the world after taking two years off, after everything she went through in Tokyo, and returning to the gym cautious and unsure. This instant. And that isn’t a point of view. It can be measured.
Saturday, Biles scored 59.1, which was more than two points higher than what Rebeca Andrade got to win the all-around title at the 2022 world championships. And Biles didn’t do her most difficult routines in the Chicago competition. Imagine what she can do at the World Championships in October if she does.
Sunisa Lee showed signs that she could be great, but her health makes the road ahead hard.
The reigning all-around Olympic champion only did beam and vault, and her signature event, bars, was just a warm-up. She came in second on the beam, behind Biles, and was very upset after her performance.
Lee said, “I’m proud of myself for not giving up.” “I overcame my fear and doubt and permitted myself to have fun.”
This meet was Lee’s return to elite competition, just like for Biles. But for Lee, it meant more. Lee was in her second year at the University of Auburn when she was told she had kidney disease this spring. She missed the rest of the season while she and her doctors worked out how to treat it. Her diagnosis and the medicine she takes to treat it make it hard for her to train at the level she did before, and she said there were times in the last few months when she wasn’t sure if she would ever do gymnastics again.
So, even though she didn’t stick to her beam routine on Saturday, it was vital to her.
“It made me sad to think about being unable to do gymnastics,” she said. “It seems strange to be back. It gave me a lot of courage. I didn’t think I’d get that high of a score on beam, and I think I’ll be ready to do a double full on my vault at Championships.”
Their friends in Tokyo aren’t ready yet. They will be, though.
Remember what Biles said at the Classic about being 50 percent? Most of the best gymnasts in the country looked like this Saturday, if not a little better. That’s nothing to worry about. It’s much more surprising that Biles is doing as well as she is than the others aren’t at their best.
Changes between Jordan Chiles, Jade Carey, Tokyo Leanne Wong, and Kayla DiCello are returning to elite gymnastics after being in the NCAA. And since they are the first gymnasts in the NIL era to compete in both arenas, there is no road map for them to follow. Getting their elite skills back in shape will take some time. But don’t write off any of them. In three weeks, the U.S. Championships will be a much better way to measure.
This weekend, other gymnasts did well.
Skye Blakely, 18, won the uneven bars, and Kaliya Lincoln, 16, came in second on the floor after Simone Biles. Both do beautiful gymnastics and have the same coach, Yevgeny Marchenko, who trained Carly Patterson to win the all-around gold medal at the 2004 Olympics.
Blakely was on the team that won gold at the 2022 World Championships. She only did three events here, but with an easy 11.35 on the floor, she could have come in second overall behind Biles. Blakely got into the U.S. Olympic trials two years ago but tore the UCL ligament in her elbow and had to drop out.