SAN JOSE — Every other gymnast in the SAP Center stopped talking, stopped moving and looked towards the great one.
There was Simone Biles, in just her second competition since taking a two-year break to focus on her mental health, ready to attempt a move so difficult that no other woman has ever tried it in a competition.
It was all about Simone as the elite women began Day 1 of the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in San Jose on Friday night.
As Biles’ name was announced at the vault, thousands of screaming fans at the SAP Center pointed their phones her way. She smiled and got into position. Then she turned on the engine and started to roar, her legs churning and arms pumping as her 4-foot-8 frame zipped up the mat, then leaped onto the fault and flipped into the air.
She hung up there forever, doing two complete cycles and sticking the landing of the Yurchenko double pike. The crowd erupted for nearly a minute. Biles held a smile for what seemed like forever. Every gymnast in her vicinity ran over to fist-bump her.
The judges gave her a 9.8, knocking off 0.2 points for only they know what, and then hit her with 0.5-point deduction for having her coach, Laurent Landi, standing on the podium to spot her. A worthy penalty to Biles, who appears to prioritize safety over perfection these days.
Still, with her 6.4 difficulty score, the highest of anyone in the competition, she tallied a remarkable 15.700 on the vault, nearly a point-and-a-half better than anybody else.
She also finished first on the floor with a 14.800 score after a sensational routine in which she executed every flip and twist, earning only one penalty for stepping over the line when her momentum and power took her through a move so quickly that she couldn’t stop herself.
Wearing a purple bow in her bun and a purple leotard with silver glitter that sparkled on her shoulders and waist, Biles fit the part as the greatest of all time, often waving at fans and interacting with the other gymnasts like she’s been here before.
She has, indeed. And on Sunday, the 26-year-old will be looking for a record-setting eighth national championship despite being the oldest woman competing.
If there was any question as to whether or not her dominant return to gymnastics at the U.S. Classic earlier this month was a fluke, if anyone was still wondering about her two-year layoff that made it seem almost impossible for her to return to top form, Biles put all that to rest with a stunning performance in Day 1.
Her only blip was in her first routine on the beam, when she leaped up with her right foot and tried to stand before her left foot ever touched the beam. She nearly tipped over, but after wobbling for a second she corrected herself, shook off the rust and finished with a perfect dismount to earn a 14.450, the best score of anybody on the beam.
Even the most critical eye would have a hard time finding any signs of the “twisties,” the mental block that often restricts gymnasts from completing their midair twists. Biles suffered from them during the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, when she withdrew from four of her five exercises because she was afraid of injuring herself while getting lost in the air.
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Perhaps that’s why her coach was standing on the mat with her on Friday, there for physical support but offering mental support too.
By the time Biles got to the uneven bars, her final routine, she held a 2.250 lead over her next closest competitor. She nailed her routine to earn a 14.350 from the judges.
She finished with a 59.300 overall, a commanding lead over her next-closest competitor, Shi Jones, with a 56.550.
The competition will wrap up on Sunday afternoon at the SAP Center.