Column: What Simone Biles’ comeback means for gymnastics, and for her

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles practices during the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
U.S. gymnast Simone Biles practices her routine before competing in the women’s balance beam at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It was over dinner and margaritas at a Mexican restaurant early this year that Simone Biles solidified her decision to return to gymnastics.

Biles doesn’t need more medals or records. She has piles of them: seven Olympic medals and 25 at the world championships in addition to having four extraordinarily difficult moves named for her, the ultimate tribute in the sport.

What she spoke into existence at that meal with Cecile Landi, one of her longtime coaches, was a simple wish. Not to turn back time to before the Tokyo Olympics. Even the G.O.A.T of gymnastics couldn’t do that. Nor could she erase the memory of her shocking bout with “the twisties,” a form of spatial disorientation that made it difficult for her to compete and harmed her mental health, leading her to withdraw from most of the events at an Olympics she had been expected to dominate.


Her exit had been beyond her control, not made on her terms. Her choice to return was voluntary and from the heart.

“She wanted to give herself a chance to do it,” Landi said Friday.

Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and other high-profile athletes pushed mental health issues to the forefront of conversations in sports and beyond in 2021.

Dec. 9, 2021

Biles, now 26 and recently married to Green Bay Packers safety Jonathan Owens, is taking her first big step toward a third Olympics by competing Saturday in the Core Classic at Now Arena in suburban Chicago. She looked a lot like her old, dynamic self Friday during what’s called podium training, where she tumbled, leaped and twisted without incident. She generated so much power on the vault that she overrotated her Yurchenko double pike a couple of times. The small crowd applauded her vaults, especially, and she responded with her trademark megawatt smiles.

Having her back at this event, in which she should easily qualify for the U.S. championships and become a contender for the 2024 Paris Olympics, is a gift to the sport she reshaped and redefined. Above all, it’s a gift to herself.

“She’s an adult. She just got married. Her priorities have shifted and changed. And when you are doing it for yourself and you realize that it’s for the joy of the sport and not feel a lot of the pressures of something else impact you that way, it can be more fun,” said Alicia Sacramone Quinn, a 10-time world medalist who has joined USA Gymnastics’ leadership group.

“She’s efficient. She’s very good at what she does. I know when I came back older and had better insight of myself in the sport, it’s just easier to do. You don’t feel as burdened. You take care of yourself better. It’s more knowledge, so everything is better.”

Biles declined to speak to reporters Friday but appeared healthy and fearless. She didn’t perform her unique triple-twisting, double backflip in her floor exercise routine, but Landi said that decision was strategy-based with an eye on the code of points. Judges have been harsh about flawed landings. For Biles, doing something that’s relatively easier and sticking the landing can be more rewarding.


Critics who say U.S. gymnast Simone Biles choked or quit don’t understand the pressure she faces and need to shut up, columnist Bill Plaschke writes.

July 27, 2021

She came through an elite training camp a few weeks ago with top scores, and the bobbles she experienced Friday were born of rustiness, not fear. Her fear is gone.

“We wouldn’t be here if we had seen any hesitation. It’s her will to be here. We support it. We see it,” Landi said. “As long as she tells us she’s good to go, we’re going to continue.”

She’s off to a good start. “She could do everything that she could do before,” Landi said. And that’s a lot.

Jade Carey, the Tokyo floor exercise gold medalist, wasn’t surprised by Biles’ return.

“I knew that she would want to come back and I’m really excited for her to be back out here,” said Carey, who’s making her own return to elite competition after two seasons at Oregon State. “It’s really inspiring to see her come back after everything she’s been through.”

Tokyo all-around gold medalist Sunisa Lee, whose career at Auburn and return to elite competition have been slowed by a kidney ailment, was impressed by what she saw.

“She looks amazing. Like it doesn’t look like she took a year off, or any time off, and, like, how do you do that?” said Lee, who will compete in only a couple of events here. “But again, she’s Simone so she’s just amazing. It’s really cool to be competing alongside her all the time and to just have her there if I need to talk.


“She’s such an inspiration to me because she’s done so many unthinkable things and she’s a great person for me to watch.”

Whether Biles would return was a mystery for a while. She didn’t post any routines on social media. She’d sometimes visit the World Champions Centre, her training facility in Katy, Tex., but that wasn’t unusual because her family owns it.

College gymnastics coaches salute Simone Biles for having the courage to withdraw from competition and demonstrate how to respond under pressure.

July 27, 2021

Once Biles’ wedding was over, Landi said, “We saw a shift in her training and commitment to being back.” Then came her regular appearances in the gym. Fans began to speculate, but everyone at her gym preserved the suspense and stayed tight-lipped.

“It was on the down-low, but not really,” said Zoe Miller, who trains at WCC. “Just trying to give her her own space and time. It was never definite until she announced it.”

Biles didn’t actually get to announce it. Word that she planned to return leaked out in late May during a podcast led by former Notre Dame and Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn, who’s married to Sacramone Quinn.

“He didn’t think he was doing a bad thing. He was just excited. Simone is a fan favorite of my daughter’s,” Sacramone Quinn said. “He now gets to no longer know any secrets.”


The secret’s out: Simone Biles is back on her own terms, ready to enhance an already remarkable legacy built not just on vaults and pirouettes but also on having inspired conversations about the importance of athletes’ mental health. That’s worth more than any medal in her collection.