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With the Olympics fast approaching, gymnast Simone Biles already looks dominant

Simone Biles smiles during her floor exercise routine at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Sunday.
Elsa Garrison
Getty Images
Simone Biles smiles during her floor exercise routine at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on Sunday.

Simone Biles sprinted toward the springboard, leapt onto the vault and launched herself into the air, flipping her entire body two and a half times in a Yurchenko double pike, one of the most difficult routines in all of gymnastics.

On Sunday, in the all-around finals at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, her momentum was too great to stop. Biles landed hard, flying backwards onto her back in a total fall, amid worried cries from the crowd.

The fall was a rare major mistake by Biles, 27, the undisputed queen of a sport where even the smallest step at the end of a routine can mean the difference between gold and silver.

But soon enough came her score: 15.000, higher than any of her competitors. The difficulty of her routine had been so high, and her execution otherwise so good, that the fall simply didn't make a difference.

On the strength of her vault and a superlative floor routine, Biles easily won this weekend's all-around title and qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials later this month, where she is expected to earn her way to a third Olympic appearance.

Biles is already the most decorated gymnast in the history of the sport. Beginning with her breakout appearance as a 16-year-old at the gymnastics World Championships in 2013, Biles has picked up seven Olympic medals and 30 other international medals in her career so far.

But her return to the world stage hadn't been a sure thing — especially at this high level — after her struggles at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 led her to take a two-year-long break from gymnastics for the sake of her mental health.

Now, barring injury, Biles is a lock for next month's Olympic Games in Paris. And she looks happy, smiling after she finishes her routines, laughing with teammates and reporters.

"I use the phrase 'aging like fine wine,'" she said Sunday. "It's just getting better and better. So we'll see. Hopefully we get to ride this out for the rest of the year."

Returning to form after Tokyo mental health break

In 2021, expectations for Biles at the Tokyo Olympics were sky-high, and the effects of the pressure started to show even before the Olympics began.

During qualifications, Biles stumbled and fell several times. Then, in Tokyo, she experienced what she later called the "twisties," in which she suddenly found herself unable to twist her body correctly through the air.

She withdrew from several of the Olympic finals, and ultimately took that long hiatus from the sport altogether.

On Sunday, Biles said she had lost trust in herself after Tokyo. Even as she began training again, she wasn't confident she would be able to return to form, she said.

"It took a lot mentally and physically to just trust my gymnastics again, and most importantly, trust myself," she said. The mental aspect was more difficult than the physical work, she added.

Biles's approach to her mental game is now the same as how she views the technical part, her coach Laurent Landi said Sunday. "You make a mistake one day, and you understand what happened. And then you try to not make it the next turn," he said.

"Before Tokyo, she would have never thought this kind of stuff would have happened. And now she knows," he added. "By doing this, she trained herself as well, mentally, to get more prepared and to handle everything."

Looking ahead to the 2024 Olympics in Paris

At 27, Biles is older for a sport that has traditionally been dominated by younger athletes, often teenagers. But this weekend she showed she is still at the top in U.S. gymnastics.

In addition to her all-around title last weekend, Biles won each of the four individual events: vault, bars, beam and floor. (Often, gymnastics scores are separated by tenths or even hundredths of a point; Biles won the all-around title by nearly 6 points.)

Later this month, Biles will compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Minneapolis. There she'll be joined by three other veterans from the Tokyo Olympics — Sunisa Lee, Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles — along with a slate of other hopefuls.

One competitor to watch will be Shilese Jones, who had been expected to finish second behind Biles at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships before a shoulder injury caused her to withdraw hours before the event began.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Becky Sullivan
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.