Simone Biles is returning to her first international competition since the Tokyo Olympics when she takes part this week in the 2023 World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium — the same city where she won her first world title a decade ago at age 16.
Since then, she has won eight national titles, 25 world medals, seven Olympic medals and sparked a national conversation about mental health.
Biles is also preparing to unveil a new skill on the world stage. She plans to become the first woman to complete a Yurchenko double pike vault – two backflips off the springboard in a piked body position – at a major international competition. If she puts it to her feet, the skill will be named after her.
Her gymnastics isn’t the only thing that’s different this time around. Biles has a new approach, both physically and mentally, for her return to the sport.
A new mindset on the road to Paris 2024
Biles is expected by many to come out on top again in Antwerp, but she says she changed her mentality after the Tokyo Olympics.
“I think we have to be a little bit more cautious about the way we do things,” she said in a recent interview with the “TODAY” show. “Everything that we’re doing leading up to [Paris 2024] is very intentional. We’ve kind of been playing it on the down-low this time, making sure mentally and physically are both intact.”
Biles is focusing on “being intentional, going to therapy, and making sure everything is aligned so that [she] can do [her] best in the gym, be a good wife, good daughter, good friend, all the good things,” she said.
After grappling with the “twisties” and pulling out of multiple events at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Biles took a break from the sport. The spatial disorientation condition is common in gymnastics and is typically temporary, but Biles took almost two years off to recover mentally and physically after the Olympics.
“I’m still scared to do gymnastics,” she said in an October 2021 interview with “TODAY.” The gymnastics world was unsure whether Biles, considered by many to be the greatest gymnast of all time, would ever return to the competition stage.
“I think I have to take care of myself a little bit more and make sure that I’m making time for the important things in my life,” she said.
Biles announced her return to competition in June ahead of the U.S. Classic, during which she performed her twisting skills without a hitch and won the all-around title.
Despite her mental preparations, she is not immune to competition nerves. “Feeling quite anxious,” she posted on Instagram’s Threads ahead of podium training in Antwerp on Thursday.
Podium training is a “dress rehearsal” of sorts for elite gymnasts, where they practice on the competition equipment ahead of qualifications. Biles performed her full routines with only minor errors.
Former Olympians in charge at USA Gymnastics
In her third Olympic cycle, Biles has returned to a new order at USA Gymnastics. The organization’s leadership structure was overhauled last year, with the helm now divided among three people, instead of being in one person’s hands.
Chellsie Memmel and Alicia Sacramone Quinn, both former elite gymnasts and members of the 2008 silver medal-winning Olympic team, are now sharing leadership responsibilities with longtime coach Dan Baker.
The move signaled an attempt by the organization to decentralize power and prioritize athlete well-being after Larry Nassar, the U.S. national team doctor, was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing hundreds of gymnasts, including Biles.
Biles and her former Olympic teammates testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2021 after a Justice Department inspector general report detailed the FBI’s mishandling of the Nassar case.
“I am excited to be part of the team of coaches and athletes moving our program forward,” Memmel said upon her hiring. “Having the chance to give back and help create the best environment possible for success is a great opportunity. I look forward to helping to develop and execute a plan that will enable athletes to feel and perform at their best.”
Biles to debut the hardest vault in women’s gymnastics
The Yurchenko double pike is a piece of unfinished business for Biles. She completed it domestically for the first time in the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics, but did not have the chance to perform it internationally after pulling out of the team, all-around and vault events in 2021.
In order to add a new skill to the rule book, gymnasts are required to complete it at a major international competition, like a world championship or the Olympics. Biles has successfully executed the vault at two U.S. competitions this year. If she lands it in Antwerp, the vault will be officially named after her in the code of points.
She has officially submitted the skill to the FIG, the international gymnastics governing body, and it has been awarded the highest difficulty value of any vault in women’s gymnastics.
She is the gold medal favorite on vault, as well as the all-around, floor exercise, balance beam and team events.
All eyes will be on Biles as she makes her international return, but she will be flanked by five teammates: returning world all-around silver medalist Shilese Jones, 2022 world champions Skye Blakely and Leanne Wong, newcomer Joscelyn Roberson, and alternate athlete Kayla DiCello.
Suni Lee, the Olympic all-around gold medalist and breakout star of the Tokyo games, opted not to compete for a spot on the team as she recovers from kidney-related issues.
With the Russian team still banned from competition because of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the American women will enter the world championships as heavy favorites to win gold. Competing at the world championships is a key step in the path to qualify a team to the Paris Olympics next summer. Russia’s absence here leaves their Olympic berth in peril.
Britain, Brazil and China will now be the teams to watch in the battle for silver.
The team final, where the U.S. women have won every gold medal at a world championship since 2011, will be held Oct. 4. Assuming Biles sails through the qualifying round Sunday, she will compete for the individual all-around title Oct. 6.