The most decorated gymnast in history is back in competition, with Simone Biles taking gold in her first competitive event since the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The 26-year-old highflier dominated the all-around event at the 2023 Core Hydration Classic—formerly known as the U.S. Classic—with a final score fully five points ahead of the second-place finisher.
Biles also took gold in the balance beam and floor event at the competition in northeast Illinois, calling the weekend experience “really good” after her triumph on Saturday night.
“Everyone that was cheering, made posters and all that in the crowd, it just made my heart melt that they still believe in me and I got back out here and I did what I was training, so I’m very happy with the result,” she told CNBC.
The 32-time medalist had been on a two-year hiatus since her Olympic experience in Japan, where she experienced a mid-air disorientation phenomenon known as the “twisties” and ultimately pulled out of most of the competition. She still managed bronze on the balance beam but described her mental health as “not there.”
She has since become an international force for mental health awareness, encouraging athletes and other young people to prioritize their well-being amid challenging circumstances. She also continued her work promoting youth gymnastics, including at the World Champions Centre (WCC), the facility she and her family founded in her native Spring, Texas.
Last July, as Biles passed on final qualifiers for the 2022 U.S. Gymnastics Championships, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Joe Biden—roughly a year after her time in Tokyo. She was one of two Black Catholics to receive the honor at the White House that summer for embodying “the soul of the nation—hard work, perseverance, and faith.”
Biles also made major moves in her personal life, marrying her NFL fiancee Jonathan Owens some two months before announcing in late June her return to competition. By early August, she told fans online that she was “feelin’ all the emotions” during her final practice at WCC before the Core Classic.
Her nerves appeared well overcome by Saturday, however, as she delivered thrilling routines on the beam and floor before wowing the crowd with her signature maneuver on the vault, the Yurchenko double pike—with no twisties in sight. She beamed a smile to the crowd thereafter.
“It means the world because after everything that kind of transpired in Tokyo, and it took a lot,” Biles said after the competition of her unwavering supporters in the stands.
“I worked on myself a lot. I still do therapy weekly and it’s just been so exciting to come out here and have the confidence I had before.”
With her wins in Illinois, Biles has qualified for the U.S. Gymnastics championships for the first time since 2021, when she took home five medals, including four golds. This year’s competition is scheduled for August 24-27 in San Jose, California.
On the prospect of the 2024 Paris Olympics, where Biles would likely be a favorite, she told reporters she is “heading in the right direction.”
“But I still have to work on myself. I’m still going to do my therapy. I’m still going to put myself first.”
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.