Sep 17, 2023

Simone Biles is creating a new 'normal' in U.S. gymnastics

San Jose, Calif. -- If there is an equivalent of a walk-off homer in gymnastics, it is Simone Biles competing last on floor.

Biles clinched a record eighth U.S. national all-around title Sunday with the most flawless performance she has given since returning to competitive gymnastics at U.S. Classic three weeks ago. "That was the best floor routine I've ever seen her do," her coach, Laurent Landi, said. As Biles struck the ending pose on a routine that earned her a sixth national floor title, the crowd erupted in a standing ovation that shook the SAP Center. It was as if the 11,000 fans in attendance had been bottling two years of applause for the four-time Olympic gold medalist.

"Every time I come out here, I feel like I'm in a fever dream," Biles said after the meet. "I feel like nothing's real. I knew I did a good floor routine, but as soon as I got off and saw the score, I was like, 'Damn, I need to see that routine.' Because I wasn't sure. I'm in the moment. But it doesn't feel real for some reason. I just, seriously, can't believe I'm out here competing again. I'm proud of myself for that."

Although Biles led the two-day competition after day one, as well as after every rotation Sunday, it was that floor routine that will stick in the minds of U.S. gymnastics fans for some time. They are here largely to watch Biles. Look no further than the handmade "Simone Zone" and "Biles is Back" signs they hoist after her routines for proof.

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One fan, who traveled from Denver to meet up with his father, who drove from Seattle, carried a sign that read, "We traveled 1,685 miles for Biles!" For fans like them, every floor routine, every Yurchenko double pike vault, every beam set, feels like bonus time with the 26-year-old, who took two years off after the Tokyo Olympics, her future in the sport uncertain until her return earlier this month.

This time around, Biles said she is approaching the run up to the Olympics differently. She isn't sharing her personal goals publicly or even saying that making the Paris team is one of them. Here in San Jose, she didn't talk to the media until after Sunday's competition. No camera crew followed her throughout the weekend, as they did in the lead up to Tokyo. On Sunday, she did just one vault, the Cheng, in order to protect her ankles, which were sore from landing the Yurchenko double pike Friday and taped during her vault and floor routine Sunday. That meant she was out of contention for the vault title, but Landi said they made the decision for her safety and to let her ankles heal.

Once again, what Biles didn't do spoke as loudly as what she did.

This past week, the country's top gymnasts and their coaches -- Biles and Landi included -- have talked about hitting "eight for eight" or doing "normal" gymnastics, cliches that translate to performing every routine on all four apparatus over the two days of championships mistake-free and as they would on any normal day in the gym. Stay off social media. Stay present. Block out the pressure. And don't give the meet too much importance.

It's a simple idea -- hit eight for eight, bat a thousand and the scores will come. But for most, that idea is far easier to make stick in a sound bite than on the competition floor.

What Biles is doing with each rotation and every decision is shift the sport's notion of normal. After Friday's meet, a journalist asked Landi if Biles' Yurchenko double pike, a skill she is the only woman ever to attempt in competition, should look as easy as Biles made it appear Friday, when the judges awarded her an incredible 9.8 execution score. "No," he replied. "It's not normal. She is not normal."

By anyone else's standards, that is. For the remainder of this Olympic cycle, or for as long as Biles decides to continue competing in elite gymnastics, the rest of the world will rise to meet her return. That was apparent this weekend at championships, where nearly every gymnast looked far improved from just three weeks ago.

Shilese Jones, the reigning all-around silver medalist from world championships, hadn't competed in 10 months because of injuries but looked ready to medal again at worlds in Antwerp, Belgium, in October. Jones finished second behind Biles in the all-around, took the bars title and scored in the 14s on every apparatus. Leanne Wong, who has been a standout at the University of Florida since traveling to the Tokyo Olympics as an alternate, took bronze in the all-around, her highest-ever finish at championships.

From here, the national team leadership will invite as many as 18 gymnasts to a mid-September selection camp, after which they will name the five women who will represent the U.S. at worlds. "This is going to be one of the tougher worlds teams to make," national team strategic lead Alicia Sacramone said earlier this week, adding that team dynamic and competition readiness are as important as contest results to her and technical lead Chellsie Memmel. "Ideally, we would like a mix of veterans and up and comers who need [international] experience," Memmel said.

For the first time since 2017, the men's team will not hold a selection camp and instead announced their world's team after championships Sunday. Asher Hong, 19, won his first national all-around title Saturday and became the youngest U.S. men's all-around champion in 34 years. In Antwerp, Hong will lead a group of American men that includes U.S. all-around silver medalist Khoi Young, 20, and bronze medalist Fred Richard, 19.

If championships were any indication, the future looks promising for a U.S. men's program that hasn't won a team medal at a major international event since 2014, when they took bronze at world championships. Hong said he believes this is the team to return the U.S. to the international podium.

"Brett [McClure, men's program VP] and Jason [Woodnick, men's high-performance director] are really supportive of us competing the hard stuff and they're not afraid for us to fall," Hong said in reference to USA Gymnastics' move after Tokyo to add bonuses that incentivize gymnasts to attempt more difficult skills. "They know there will be mistakes along the way and it's just a matter of doing our best to compete those hard routines. That's the only way we're going to be competitive with China, Japan and Russia."

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