HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — Simone Biles is a champion once again.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist returned to gymnastics competition at the Core Hydration Classic outside of Chicago on Saturday night, where she won the all-around, balance beam and floor titles and had the highest score on vault.
Biles finished five points ahead of silver medalist Leanne Wong with an all-around score of 59.1, an unbelievable margin in a sport of tenths. And that was without her full difficulty.
Biles began on bars with a small error on a pirouette, then excelled for the remainder of the meet, capping the night with a Yurchenko double pike vault, a skill she is the only woman to land in competition.
“I think the night went really well,” Biles said after the meet. “Everything has fallen into place. I feel really good about where I am right now, mentally and physically. There are some things to work on in my routines, but for the first meet back, I would say it went pretty well. I’m very shocked and surprised.”
When Biles announced her return to competition after two years — without fanfare, without a televised announcement and simply by adding her name to the list of gymnasts competing at this meet — there was no expectation she would win or even compete in all four rotations.
The Classic is essentially a warmup for the rest of the season and the final chance for athletes to qualify into the U.S. Championships in San Jose, California, Aug. 24-27. It is an opportunity for gymnasts to shake off the cobwebs and work through nerves. Although the meet featured the return of reigning Olympic all-around champion Sunisa Lee to elite competition, as well as Tokyo Olympians Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey, Saturday night felt like a Simone Biles showcase.
Fans packed the NOW Arena to see her, crowding local hotels and posting on social media how far they’d driven to watch her compete in person, hoping Biles might see their messages and find them in the stands. A group of fans arrived two hours early to the arena wearing white football jerseys with “Biles” and No. 1 on the back. Young fans held white poster board signs with “Welcome Back Simone” crafted in glitter, paint and stickers.
“After everything that transpired in Tokyo, the amount of outpouring of love and support that I had on Twitter, on Instagram and in the arena was just really shocking and surprising to me that they still have so much belief in me,” Biles said. “They still love me, and it just makes my heart warm. Especially in a time like this where I was really nervous to compete again.”
Biles’ star has never been a question. But before this weekend, few people outside of her gym knew what the 2023 version of Biles the gymnast was capable of achieving. Here in Chicago, she needed scores from only two events to qualify for the U.S. Championships and become eligible to be named to the World Championship team that will represent the U.S. in Belgium in October. She didn’t need to compete in the all-around. Most people expected she would do only what was necessary and, like Chiles, Lee and Carey, compete in only the mandatory two events.
But when the rotation schedule was released an hour before the meet, with Biles’ name in every rotation, her return became real.
But anyone who watched Biles practice Friday morning or warm up Saturday already knew Biles came to make a statement. During those sessions, she landed some of the toughest skills in the sport, and that was before the judging started.
In the first rotation of competition, Biles earned a 14.000 on uneven bars. It was not her highest-ever score on the apparatus, but was 0.8 higher than she scored the last time she competed at this meet, in 2021, and won the all-around. When she twisted early on a pirouette and had to fight to save a handstand near the end of her routine, the crowd erupted, cheering her effort as much as the routine.
And if there was any question whether Biles is still suffering effects from the mental block that caused her to lose her air awareness during twisting skills — what gymnasts refer to as the “twisties” — and pull out of the team and all-around competitions in Tokyo, she answered that, too. Biles twisted off bars. She performed a full-twisting double off beam, a relatively easy skill compared to her usual dismounts, but one that according to her coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, was meant to help her gain confidence this weekend.
She landed a double-twisting double back on floor, in the middle of her routine. And then there was vault, where her 15.4 was the highest score on any apparatus all night.
“As soon as I’d done that first full-out on bars, everybody was, like, screaming so loud,” Biles said. “I was like, I’m twisting again. To just have that support means the world. That’s when we got emotional.”
One competition into her return, Biles now shifts her focus toward San Jose and Belgium. In 2013, at 16, Biles won her first of a record five world all-around titles. Now she has an opportunity to compete for a sixth. One year out from the Paris Olympics, Biles already looks like the best gymnast in the world.
In a couple of months, she will have the opportunity to prove it.