HOFFMAN ESTATES – Ignore the wedding band and it could have been 2019 for Simone Biles. Or 2016. Or 2014.
Long before Tokyo. Long before the "twisties.” Long before two years off in which the gymnastics star took a step back, took a long look at the arc of her record-setting career and decided she wasn't done. Not quite yet.
There she was walking onto the floor at NOW Arena on Friday on the eve of the U.S. Classic, her first meet since winning bronze on balance beam at the delayed 2020 Olympics, a medal she called among the sweetest she's ever earned.
There she was laughing with her teammates. There she was running and stretching and flipping — and yes, occasionally twisting — with the casual ease she summoned so regularly when the seven-time Olympic medalist was at her peak.
Those heady days may be over. Biles is 26 now and at a different place in her life. She married Green Bay Packers defensive back Jonathan Owens in April. Her Instagram feed is filled with images of the house they're building, her dogs, her friends and very little of the sport she's helped redefine.
The details of her comeback after an eventful two weeks at the Tokyo Games in which she removed herself from multiple events while she battled a mental block ( "the twisties" ) have been kept heavily under wraps. The announcement she was competing on Saturday came not from one of her social media channels or a broadcast network but rather USA Gymnastics.
No documentary crew following her around. No opening up the gym her family owns north of Houston to let the world come in and watch. There's a sense this feels personal for Biles in a way the run-up to Tokyo did not.
Still, the energy surrounding her return is palpable. A few hundred fans paid $25 a pop — a rarity for what is typically a modestly attended meet — to watch Biles practice. The average ticket price on the secondary market for Saturday night's evening session featuring Biles and 2020 Olympic champion Suni Lee was going upward of $400 as of Friday afternoon, mostly because whatever seats were available when Biles officially entered the meet vanished within hours.
Shouts of “Simone!” echoed throughout the arena whenever she finished a routine. There was a round of applause when she landed her third attempt at a double-pike vault — essentially two backflips with her hands clasped just above her knees — even though she got so much height she over-rotated a bit and bounded off the back of the mat.
Afterward, she approached a sea of cameras and said “welcome to our vlog” while walking with several of her teammates at World Championships Centre. Rather than stop to chat, she laughed and kept on moving, intent to let her actions — at least at this point in her comeback — speak louder than her words.
And those actions seem to serve notice she is intent on returning to her spot atop the sport, albeit with some tweaks to accommodate the new code of points and to make her as comfortable as possible, both mentally and physically.
While her coach Cecile Landi stressed Biles can do “everything” she's done before, the Amanar vault that requires her to twist 2 1/2 times in midair — the same vault that went sideways in Tokyo, forcing her to leave the competition — is gone. She's not doing her eponymous double-twisting double backflip beam dismount at the moment either, though that may simply be because the current code makes the risk not worth it.
And to think Biles didn't fully turn her attention to gymnastics until after her wedding in late April. Her workouts have become more efficient, with a focus more on the quality of work than the quantity.
“We wouldn’t be here if we had seen any hesitation (from her),” Landi said. "It’s her will to be here. We supported (her). We see it. So as long as she tells us she’s good to go, we’re going to continue.”
While Biles dazzled during an internal meet at a U.S. national team camp last month, things will be different under the lights on Saturday.
The landings will be hard. The scores will count. Ratings figure to spike as fans and the merely curious tune in to see how Biles reacts to being under the spotlight she so deftly commanded for so long until that strange night at the Ariake Gymnastics Center two summers ago.
While the rest of the world may be wondering if Biles will stand atop the vault runway thinking about Tokyo, it's more likely she's going to be thinking about the next 10 seconds, not the last couple of years.
Alicia Sacramone Quinn is the strategic lead for the U.S. women's elite program. Fifteen years ago she was an Olympian, though mistakes on two events in the team final played a factor in the Americans winning silver in the team final, not gold.
Not that it stopped her. She competed for four more years, making the 2011 world championship team, though she later had to withdraw because of injury.
Quinn understands the narrative surrounding a gymnast considered the greatest of all time. She also isn't worried about it consuming Biles when she salutes the judges and leaps onto the uneven bars on Saturday night.
“You kind of train yourself to get out of that mindset," Quinn said. "You’re like, ‘I can’t change what happened in the past, so I’m just going to look to the future and try to do my best.’”
AP coverage of the Paris Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games