Simone Biles’ redemption song continues to silence Tokyo demons

The 27-year-old gymnast, regarded as one of the best ever, booked her ticket to Paris with a resounding victory at the US trials. Having successfully made a comeback after a two-year break to safeguard her mental health, she has the opportunity to put the 2020 Olympics firmly in her rearview mirror

Updated - July 06, 2024 09:44 am IST

Published - July 06, 2024 12:49 am IST

A titan at the Olympics: Simone Biles will be a prohibitive favourite when she steps onto the Bercy Arena floor in Paris although there is plenty to work on before women’s qualifying on July 28. | Photo credit: Getty Images

A titan at the Olympics: Simone Biles will be a prohibitive favourite when she steps onto the Bercy Arena floor in Paris although there is plenty to work on before women’s qualifying on July 28. | Photo credit: Getty Images

For a generation, Simone Biles has defined gymnastics. For the last three years, she has done everything in her power to ensure it doesn’t define her.

At the Tokyo Games in 2021, Biles — regarded by then as one of the best of all time — had a bout of the disorienting ‘twisties’. It’s a temporary condition in which gymnasts lose their sense of where they are in the air, increasing the risk of injury when they land.

Rediscovering her best

Biles memorably pulled out of multiple finals to protect her mental health and safety — a decision that came with a backlash that still litters her social media feed — but has since worked to return to competitive gymnastics and rediscover her best. 

At the World Championships last year, she increased her World and Olympics medal tally to 37, making her the most decorated gymnast ever — male or female — at the sport’s two signature events ahead of the retired Vitaly Scherbo. It was an astonishing big-stage comeback.

And now she has the opportunity to put the Tokyo Olympics firmly in her rearview mirror. Biles booked her ticket to the Paris Games after a resounding all-around victory at the US gymnastics trials last weekend and will headline an American team eyeing a shot at redemption.

The 27-year-old took two years off after Tokyo, a break in which she prioritised her mental health — she now meets with her therapist weekly, even during competitions — and moved on with her life. Biles’ gut told her that if she wanted to come back, she needed to do it on her terms. That meant taking intentional steps to make sure her life is no longer defined by her gymnastics.

New perspective: Biles, who married Chicago Bears safety Jonathan Owens last spring, has shifted gymnastics to something she does, not something that defines her. | Photo credit: Getty Images

New perspective: Biles, who married Chicago Bears safety Jonathan Owens last spring, has shifted gymnastics to something she does, not something that defines her. | Photo credit: Getty Images

She married Chicago Bears safety Jonathan Owens last spring and has shifted gymnastics to something she does, not the essence of her self-worth. Indeed, the couple are building a house in the northern Houston suburbs they hope to move into shortly after Biles returns from Paris.

The oldest American woman to make an Olympic gymnastics team since the 1950s, Biles never expected to still be doing this nearly a decade after becoming a crossover sensation at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. Besides, in the immediate aftermath of Tokyo, she had “never pictured going to another Olympic Games”. 

“I never thought I would go back in the gym again, be twisting, feel free,” Biles told an exultant crowd at the US trials in Minneapolis. And yet here she is. Still working. Still pushing. Not to shut up the critics who still flood her mentions on social media wondering if she will “quit” again, but because she remains determined to extract everything she can out of her remarkable talent.

Embracing the grind

“Nobody’s forcing me to do it,” said Biles, who posted a two-day total of 117.225 to claim the all-around by almost six points over Sunisa Lee, who took the all-around gold in Tokyo. “I wake up every day and choose to grind in the gym and come out here and perform for myself. Just to remind myself that I can still do it.”

And do it at a level that no one else in her sport — and when she’s at her best, maybe sports in general — can match. A trip to France has never really been in doubt since Biles returned last summer. All she’s done over the last 12 months is win a sixth world all-around title and capture her eighth and ninth national championships — both records.

Biles will be a prohibitive favourite when she steps onto the Bercy Arena floor in Paris although there is plenty to work on before women’s qualifying on July 28. 

At the trials, Biles backpedalled after landing her Yurchenko double pike vault, a testament to both the vault’s difficulty and the immense power she generates during a skill few male gymnasts try and even fewer land as cleanly. She hopped off the beam after failing to land her side aerial, though she wasn’t quite as frustrated as she was during a sloppy performance last Friday that left her uttering an expletive for all the world to see.

A true unicorn: At an age where most gymnasts try to hold on to their skills, the 27-year-old is performing some of the hardest gymnastics being done by any woman on the planet. | Photo credit: Getty Images

A true unicorn: At an age where most gymnasts try to hold on to their skills, the 27-year-old is performing some of the hardest gymnastics being done by any woman on the planet. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Biles finished with a flourish on floor exercise, her signature event. Though there was a small step out of bounds, there was also the unmatched world-class tumbling that recently drew a shoutout from pop star Taylor Swift, whose song ‘Ready For It’ opens Biles’ routine.

At an age where most gymnasts are simply trying to hold on to their skills — that is if they haven’t already retired — Biles may be as good as ever. Her vaulting and floor exercise routines are the hardest being done by any woman on the planet. The Houston-area native is a four-time world champion on beam and has even started to fancy uneven bars.

For decades, the US teenage gymnasts would head to the Games, win medals and then cede the spotlight to the next wave of talent. Those days are long gone. Biles joked that she needs to apologise to 2016 Olympic teammate Aly Raisman, who was nicknamed “grandma”, when Raisman was all of 22. “I’m way older now,” Biles said with a laugh.

The 4’8” Biles, who has five skills named after her, will spend the next few weeks ramping up for the Games. The Americans are heavily favoured to ace the qualifying, breeze into the eight-team finals scheduled for July 30 and finish atop the podium, with defending champion Russia unable to compete as part of the fallout of its war with Ukraine.

The real intrigue for the US will likely centre on who makes the all-around and event finals. The International Gymnastics Federation rules limit countries to two athletes per individual competition. There is every chance, though, that Biles will feature heavily. 

Safeguards in place

She heads to France as perhaps the face of the US Olympic movement, though she’s well aware that more than a few of the millions that will tune in to watch will be checking to see if the demons that derailed her in Tokyo resurface.

And while there are still moments of anxiety — including at last year’s World Championships — she has put safeguards in place — therapy, breathing and visualisation exercises — to protect herself. It’s an aspect she did not include in her preparation for the 2020 Games. 

So while there is plenty of buzz about her adding to the four gold medals she claimed at Rio in 2016, she is intent on not getting ahead of herself, something she may have done in 2021. “I feel like success is just what I make it,” she said. “I feel like right now I’ve been successful at competing at the trials and making the Paris Olympic team. So then we’ll see from there on out.”

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