Simone Biles continued her triumphant return to competition over the weekend, taking all-around gold at the US gymnastics championships on Sunday to become the first man or woman to win eight national titles.
The event marked the second meet for the seven-time Olympic medalist since she stunned the world by withdrawing from a majority of her events at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics in August 2021, citing her mental and physical health. But if there were concerns that a break of more than two years would set Biles back, her performance over the weekend all but annihilated them.
“Simone is more fit right now than she’s ever been,” her coach Laurent Landi told journalists after Sunday’s medal ceremony, stating that Biles’ floor exercise was the best of her career.
If the 2016 Olympic all-around champion is back and better than ever, so too are her fans – who for two years patiently awaited a return that was never guaranteed. As Biles completed her final performance on Sunday evening – the stunning floor routine for which she earned an impressive score of 15.400 – the sold-out crowd that filled the 17,562-seat arena rose in a standing ovation, their cheers growing into a building-shaking roar.
While many sports have their Michael Jordans, gymnastics tends to bring less consistent star power, with interest peaking around the Olympics every four years. But from the entrance of SAP Center – where spectators were provided poster boards and markers to make signs for the event – it was clear the Simone Biles effect is back in full force. Fans in attendance, a majority of them young girls, scribbled variations of “GO SIMONE”, “Simone the G.O.A.T!” and, simply, “Girl power!” onto their signs.
“This is like a Taylor Swift concert but for Simone,” said Samantha Brady, 10, whose father had driven her four hours from their home in Chico, California, to see Biles compete. “She’s literally my idol.”
While Biles has attracted a popstar-like following from young fans – many of whom were born after she began her senior career in 2013 – longtime followers of the sport have a special appreciation for the gymnast’s trajectory. The 26-year-old from suburban Houston surpassed Linda Metheny Mulvihill as the oldest woman ever to win the national all-around title on Sunday, a full 10 years after she won it for the first time as a teenage prodigy. Landi, her coach, said that Biles’ age is an asset in the sport.
“She knows what she can and cannot do outside of the gym to stay fit – it’s about maturity,” he said. “When you know yourself and you know your body, you can keep going for as long as you think you can.”
After Biles withdrew from the Olympics, a handful of critics – from Twitter trolls to Fox News hosts – branded her as a “quitter” who had selfishly let her team down. But for many who came to see her compete on Friday and Sunday, her decision in Tokyo only strengthened their admiration.
Tanner Scott, 27, who stood in the stands holding a sign that read, “We traveled 1,685 miles for Biles,” said he drove to California from Colorado to attend the event with his father, Tracy, who traveled from Illinois.
“I love the message she gave the world, that it is OK to take a break and do what’s best for her,” Tracy said. “I was already inspired by her as a gymnast. Now I’m more inspired by her as a person.”
Biles’ appearances back on the mat this year have strongly implied she is bidding to compete in a third Olympic Games in Paris next year. But for her part, the gymnast has made it clear she is taking things one competition at a time, declining to comment on Olympic rumors. Nor has she confirmed her attendance at next month’s four-day selection camp in Katy, Texas, where the US roster will be chosen for the October world championships in Antwerp.
“I like to keep (my goals) personal, just so that I know what I’m aiming for,” Biles said. “I think it’s better that way. I’m trying to move a little bit differently this year than I have in the past. I think it’s working so far, so I’m going to keep it secretive.”
Biles, who married Green Bay Packers defensive back Jonathan Owens earlier this year, told journalists on Sunday that she didn’t believe she would be competing again until she ordered leotards in June for the US Classic, her comeback meet earlier this month which ended her 732-day layoff. When asked why she ultimately decided to return, she chose her words with care.
“I ask myself that every day,” Biles said. “I still feel like I have some personal goals, and I kind of proved to myself that I can still go out there and compete to the same level as before. I’m going to give it one more go, and then we’ll see.”