Simone Biles cruises to 9th national title

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — There used to be a time when Simone Biles would find “beauty in the blindness” ahead of the Olympics, reveling in not knowing what she didn’t know.

That was eight years ago. Back when she was still just a teenager. Still kind of “ditzy.”

Those days are long gone. The evidence isn’t just on Biles drivers’ license or her marriage certificate but in how the now 27-year-old is able to see beyond herself. The tunnel vision that most great athletes have in pursuit of greatness has fallen away.

And maybe that’s the biggest difference between the national title the gymnastics star won on Sunday night — her ninth, this one with an all-around total of 119.750 — and her first over a decade ago.

The defining moment of Biles’ victory wasn’t a twist, a turn or a jump, but a walk.

It came early on, when Biles watched 2020 Olympic champion and good friend Sunisa Lee spin awkwardly in the air during her vault and landed on her back, a mixture of surprise and fear spreading across her face.

“I was kind of thinking that this was over,” Lee said.

Then Biles appeared at her side, unprompted. She knew exactly where Lee was in that moment better than anyone.

Three years ago at the Tokyo Games, a similar wayward vault by Biles started a chain of events that led to her withdrawing from multiple competitions and dragging the discussion on the importance of mental health front and center.

Watching Lee, who has spent most of the last two years battling kidney issues that have made her weight yo-yo and complicated her training, try to gather herself, Biles left her World Champions Centre teammates and gave Lee the kind of support Biles relied on so heavily back in Japan.

“I know how traumatizing it is, especially on a big stage like this,” Biles said. “And I didn’t want her to get in her head, so we just went and talked about it.”

The two retreated off the floor to talk, with Biles reminding Lee she “could do hard things.”

When they returned, Biles stood next to the uneven bars cheering Lee on as she rebounded with a brilliant (if somewhat watered down) routine that scored a 14.500 and helped her finish a promising fourth.

“I know I was having a hard time and she was just there to help lift me up,” Lee said.

Biles is at a stage in her unparalleled career where the joy she gets from the sport is no longer centered strictly on the quality of her performance.

While she joked that she believes she’s “aging like fine wine,” it’s telling that she saved her biggest smile afterward when talking about the five World Champions Centre teammates — most of them a decade younger — who will join her at Olympic trials in Minneapolis later this month.

“That’s kind of what excites me because I think they have long careers ahead of them,” Biles said. “So if I can do anything to help them, right now and in the future, that’s what I’m going to do.”

It’s her way of giving back. She is well aware of the spotlight that awaits her in Paris and is trying to set an example for others on how to navigate the pressure that lies ahead. She’s become a regular in therapy — now even during meet weeks — and is determined to focus on what she can control.

Like say, her gymnastics.

In front of an audience that included her husband, Chicago Bears safety Jonathan Owens, Biles put on a four-rotation clinic that featured all the trademarks of a typical Biles performance. There was jaw-dropping athleticism mixed with precision and more than a splash of swagger.

Biles finished with the highest two-day score on all four events, something she’d done only once before at nationals (2018).

Her only misstep on Sunday came on vault. She came up short on her Yurchenko double pike — two back flips with her hands clasped behind her knees — during warmups and overcompensated when it counted, generating so much force she wound up on her back. She still received a 15.000 for her effort, a testament to a vault that’s never been completed in competition by another woman and only attempted by a select group of men.

Not that it bothered her. Biles collected herself, took a couple of deep breaths then followed it up a Cheng vault that was rewarded with a 15.1 and put a ninth national title within reach. No other gymnast in the history of the sport in the U.S. has more than seven.

While Biles remains above the fray as usual, there is plenty of competition for the other four spots on the five-woman U.S. team that will head to Paris as heavy favorites to return to the top of the podium after finishing second to Russia in Tokyo three years ago.

Skye Blakely, 19, put together another impressive performance and will head to Minneapolis with plenty of momentum. Three years after her bid to make the 2020 Olympic team ended with an injury, Blakely is peaking at the right time.

Lee remains a picture of elegance on bars and beam, her best events, and was encouraged after her first elite all-around competition since she triumphed in Tokyo while Biles cheered from the stands.

Olympians Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey are in the mix, though both endured falls on beam on Sunday. Third-place finisher Kayla DiCello slipped off the uneven bars.

Then there’s Shilese Jones, considered the best all-around gymnast in the U.S. without the last name Biles, pulled out of the championships on Friday, citing a shoulder injury though she said Sunday she was feeling better and plans to be available for trials. So will 18-year-old Kaliya Lincoln, who opted not to compete on Sunday after tweaking something during Friday night’s opening session.

Both — if healthy — figure to be serious contenders to earn an invitation to Paris (Jones in particular).

Biles’ ticket is essentially punched. Same as it ever was.

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