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She’s back: Simone Biles set to return to competition for first time since 2019

Simone Biles hasn’t performed in a competitive environment since the 2019 world championships. (Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images)

After elite gymnastics competitions halted because of the pandemic, Simone Biles provided glimpses into her improvement, infrequent updates via short videos of a new skill or snippets of interviews in which she shared plans to stretch the boundaries of the sport at this summer’s Olympics.

This weekend marks Biles’s formal return. She will compete alongside dozens of American gymnasts at the U.S. Classic in Indianapolis, the first of three major competitions this spring and summer as the Tokyo Games approach. Biles hasn’t performed in a competitive environment since the 2019 world championships, when she won yet another all-around title. Since then, she has added more difficulty to her routines, with Saturday’s meet serving as a long-awaited public unveiling.

During a Friday morning training session, Biles practiced a Yurchenko double pike — a vault that requires a round-off onto the springboard, a back handspring onto the vault and then a double flip in a piked position. No female gymnast has done this vault in competition, and if Biles does so at the Olympics, it will become the fifth skill that bears her name.

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Biles said she tried the vault into the foam pit for fun “years ago,” but she only recently considered performing the skill in a meet. At her club near Houston, she trains this vault with a competition-like landing, but it’s a bit softer because there is a foam surface under the mats. During the pre-meet training session, she landed the vault twice — nearly sticking the first attempt and then taking a bouncing step backward the second time because she had too much power.

“Never in a million years did I think it was going to be feasible,” Biles said. “… It was just to play around, be a kid. And I was never mentally strong or physically strong enough to do it back then anyways. I feel like now that I’m a little bit older, mentally and physically, I feel ready and prepared.”

For Biles, the U.S. Classic, the U.S. championships (June 3-6) and the Olympic trials (June 24-27) will offer opportunities to gear up for Tokyo. She hasn’t officially earned a spot on the team, but she almost certainly will.

The four-person U.S. Olympic team will include the top two finishers at the trials and two others chosen by a committee. Two additional gymnasts will compete as individuals in Tokyo and will not contribute to the team total. Jade Carey, a 20-year-old from Phoenix who excels on the vault and floor, has mathematically clinched one of those spots. The selection committee will chose the other.

Forty-two senior elite gymnasts — a massive field compared with past years — are set to participate in this weekend’s competition. Typically, with just over a month until the trials, a small batch of contenders may have emerged. But the lull in competitions has made it harder to have a sense of which gymnasts will rise.

“I definitely feel like it’s a lot more wide open,” said Morgan Hurd, the 2017 world all-around champion. “Not only [because of the long layoff], but the field is just so insanely deep.”

The major elite competitions typically begin late in the spring, so all of those events in 2020 were canceled. Hurd won the American Cup just before sports halted in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, but she was one of two U.S. women at that international competition. It has been longer since many of her peers have last performed.

Grace McCallum hasn’t competed all four events since the 2019 world championships, and a hand injury limited her training this past winter. Entering the U.S. Classic, McCallum said she felt “it was going to be really important to do all-around to show that I’m back and ready to go.”

Hurd, recovering from elbow surgery, doesn’t plan to perform her hardest skills this weekend. Sunisa Lee, who finished second to Biles at 2019 nationals, said on Twitter she will not compete all four events. It’s common for gymnasts to ease into the season, and results at the U.S. Classic often are not indicative of who will make the Olympic team. In 2016, four of the five gymnasts who landed on the Olympic team didn’t compete every event at this competition, which also serves at the final chance for athletes to qualify for nationals.

In February, some elite gymnasts performed at Winter Cup, and Jordan Chiles, who trains at the same club as Biles, won the all-around competition. Chiles has been improving quickly, and if she consistently delivers routines similar to what she showed in February, she will be a serious contender to make the Tokyo squad.

Beyond Biles, who will compete in all the events, the U.S. Classic field includes multiple gymnasts with experience competing for Olympic spots. Laurie Hernandez, a member of the gold medal-winning 2016 team, returned to the competition floor at Winter Cup with performances on beam and floor, and she trained for every event Friday. MyKayla Skinner, an Olympics alternate in 2016, spent three years competing for the University of Utah before returning to the elite level. She missed significant training time in the past year after dealing with a bone spur in her foot, contracting the coronavirus and developing pneumonia. Now, she says, “I feel like I’m peaking at the right time.”

Chellsie Memmel, a 2008 Olympian and the 2005 world all-around champion, will compete this weekend for the first time since 2012. She plans to perform on the vault and beam. Her recent pursuits have sparked awe in the gymnastics community. Memmel, 32, never ventured far from the sport; she previously served as a judge at elite competitions. But what started as conditioning and trying some of her old skills for fun has turned into a legitimate return to the elite stage.

“I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to get out of it,” said Memmel, who has two children. “I just knew that I was having so much fun in the gym and training and continuing to push and see what I could keep doing. … But I’m still trying to step back and enjoy it because that was the whole reason that I started doing gymnastics again.”

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