INDIANAPOLIS – After two and a half years of orbiting one stratosphere above the rest of the gymnastics world, U.S. star Simone Biles came back down toward earth just a bit Thursday night at the P&G Gymnastics Championships, wobbling on the balance beam and falling on her last tumbling pass in floor exercise.
But when she literally came back to earth at the end of her rocket-like Amanar vault in the final rotation, her feet sticking firmly to the bright blue mat, she found herself back in familiar territory: first place.
Biles ended the first of two nights of competition with 61.1 points, 1.4 ahead of second-place Maggie Nichols and 2.4 ahead of Gabby Douglas, the 2012 Olympic all-around champion who returned to competition earlier this year.
That Biles ended the night atop the standings was hardly a surprise. That she sat in third place going into the final rotation was more surprising for a gymnast who hasn’t finished lower than first in an all-around competition since March 2013.
“I wasn’t really nervous,” Biles said. “I guess I was just disappointed in myself.”
The night started well enough for Biles, a native of Spring, Texas. Beginning on the uneven bars, typically her weakest event, she scored 15.15, tied for sixth on the night. Then some wobbles on the balance beam gave an indication that she might not run away with the competition like she did at the last two national championships.
Then came the floor exercise, where she under-rotated and fell to her knees in what she called a “freak accident.”
“I guess since I fell they said I’m human now, because everyone thinks I’m a robot,” Biles said with a smile. “So I guess I’m human now. So that clears everything out of the way.”
Of course, Biles might be the only human capable of pulling off the near-perfect Amanar — a Yurchenko vault with 2.5 twists — that she ended the night with.
“Simone is in her own league,” said Aly Raisman, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in 2012 who had the fourth best score Thursday. “We always say that Simone is first place, and whoever’s in second place is in first place.”
With less than one year to go before the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, all of the top finishers are getting more attention. In 2011, the top three gymnasts at the national championships went on to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team.
Nichols had a statement night. Coming off a knee injury and the six-month recovery that followed, the 17-year-old from Minnesota led the entire night until Biles’ vault.
Sitting one point back, Douglas, Raisman and 16-year-old Bailie Key were separated by 0.1 points for third through fifth.
The U.S. field is more mature now than it was four years ago, though. The top-three finishers in 2011 were all young gymnasts on the rise — Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney and Raisman.
Nichols and Key fit that description this time, but the other three are all well established — and aiming to defy history in 2016.
Biles is trying to prove that she can stay at the top of the sport for four years and win an Olympic gold medal at age 19. The last three Olympic all-around champions were 16, 18 and 16.
Douglas, meanwhile, is aiming to become the first Olympic all-around champion to return to the Olympic Games since Romania’s Nadia Comaneci, the 1976 champ who tied for silver in ’80, and the first to defend an Olympic all-around title since Czechoslovakia’s Vera Caslavska did so in 1964 and ’68.
And should Douglas, 19, or Raisman, 21, and the 2012 floor exercise gold medalist, make the 2016 U.S. team, they’ll be the first American women to compete in a second Olympic Games since Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes did so in 2000.
Going into the second night of P&G Championships competition Saturday, those dreams are starting to feel like they could soon become reality.
“I definitely see myself on the team and still have a lot more to come and show you guys,” Douglas said.
Chrös McDougall has been a reporter and editor for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.