Freed from her “twisties”, gymnastics superstar Simone Biles returns to the global stage at the world championships, which start in Antwerp on Saturday, with the 2024 Paris Olympics in her sights after a two-year break to treat her mental health.
Getting back to business at the beginning of August, American Biles demonstrated that she had lost none of her incredible level.
She made a triumphant return by winning the US Classic, where she obtained the best scores on vault, floor and beam, followed by a record eighth US all-around title at the national championships.
At 26, she is preparing to break another record in Antwerp by becoming the first American to participate in six world championships, a sign of her extraordinary longevity.
Among the greatest gymnasts of all time, she returns to the Flemish city where she opened her world tally 10 years ago, winning four medals, including two gold.
“It feels surreal, it’s like full circle because obviously, the world championships was here 10 years ago, which was my very first one,” Biles said in an interview with the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG).
“So now it’s just really exciting because I get to see some people who were here in 2013, which is absolutely crazy and insane. But to be back in the same arena, in the same atmosphere, I think it will be really fun and wild.”
These worlds come a little more than nine months before the Paris Games, where the four-time Olympic champion said recently she would “love” to win more titles.
“That’s the path that I would love to go,” she told NBC television in early September, confirming for the first time since her return her goal of participating in the next Olympic Games.
The American has so far made an impressive comeback, two years after the gruelling Tokyo Olympics.
Arriving in Japan as the big favourite thanks to her four titles won five years earlier in Rio, Biles broke down in full view of a global audience, withdrawing from most of the events.
She then explained that she was fighting against “twisties”, a temporary mental block whereby gymnasts lose their sense of where they are in the air, with the risk of injury when they land.
‘All the good things’
If she left Japan with a silver in the team event and a bronze on the beam, her setbacks contributed to highlighting the long taboo subject of athletes’ mental health.
“I think I have to take care of myself a little bit more and listen to my body,” she said of how she has changed as a gymnast.
“Making sure that I’m making time for the important things in my life rather than before it was just like go, go, go and then making time after.
“This time around it’s being intentional, going to therapy, making sure everything is aligned so that I can do the best in the gym and be a good wife, good daughter, good friend, all the good things.”
Her training partner in Houston, French gymnast Melanie De Jesus Dos Santos, sums up Biles’ two-year break: “She’s had her own little life!”
“To see her at such a level, it’s quite impressive,” Dos Santos told AFP.
“But seeing as I’m training with her now, I think it’s less impressive than other people. Because I see how it goes in training, I see when she succeeds, I see when she fails, I see when it’s hard. So, for me, she’s just a gymnast who works hard to achieve her goals.”
In Belgium, Biles could expand her monumental collection of 19 world titles.
To further perpetuate her legacy in gymnastics, she will also try to include a fifth element in her name in the FIG code, which regulates the scoring of events.
The US women are favourites for a seventh consecutive world team title, in the absence of Russia, the last team to defeat them in a major competition.
In the men’s competition, world and Olympic all-around champion Hashimoto Daiki is the favourite to defend his title and help Japan dethrone China, who have won 12 of the last 15 world team titles.
Britain’s Max Whitlock also returns after an extended break with mental health struggles as the two-time Olympic pommel horse champion builds towards his bid to become the first gymnast to win four Olympic medals on the same apparatus next year - he won pommel bronze in 2012.
The world championships also double up as an opportunity for gymnasts to obtain quota berths for their nation for the Olympics.
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