BOSTON -- Return to the gym. Check.
Compete all four events at an elite gymnastics meet one year later. Check.
Post the highest scores in the world in three of those events. Check.
OK, coming back from a yearlong break is a little different when you’re Simone Biles.
Although the Texan sometimes bristles when fans and media refer to her as superhuman, she’s long established that she’s a special talent. That showed during the last quadrennial, when she won a boatload of medals at the world championships, and then capped it off with four gold medals at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
It showed, too, in her return to the sport at last month’s U.S. Classic. Having only resumed training last summer, Biles regained both her fitness and her skills unusually fast, and then she got right to work in winning the U.S. Classic by more than a point, her world-leading scores on vault, floor and beam more than erasing the points lost on a fall off the uneven bars and a step out of bounds on floor.
And so with her mythical, superhuman status built right back up in her comeback meet, the 21-year-old Texan came to Boston for this week’s U.S. Gymnastics Championships, which are part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity, ready to show off not just her gymnastics, but her human side, too.
Entertaining a throng of reporters before a training session on Wednesday, Biles confidently fielded questions, from thoughtful answers about her comeback to giggly banter about her new lip tattoo. She talked about how happy she is to be competing again, and how challenging it can be to establish new bonds with new teammates, as her 2016 Olympic teammates are currently out of elite gymnastics.
She even showed off that tattoo — the letters “XO,” on the inside of her lip.
“I don’t know, I always wanted a lip tattoo and I heard it didn’t hurt, so I went and got one,” Biles said with a big smile.
And then of course there’s her gymnastics. Sure, her performance at the U.S. Classic might have looked easy, she said, but you should have seen her the next day.
“As I got home in the gym I was completely dead,” she said. “I was lifeless, I felt like, and I was like I can’t do any of this, I need a week recovery.”
And so that revealed her human challenge for this week. The U.S. Classic was a one-day meet, whereas the U.S. championships will be decided based on a combined score from Friday and Sunday.
“I felt a little bit more confident at Classics,” Biles explained, “just because I’m worried about the two-day competition.”
There’s no question this weekend presents a new box for Biles to check off in her comeback. Four routines is hard, and eight routines is even more taxing. But one can be forgiven for not exactly being nervous about Biles’ chances. After all, she’s competed at this two-day national championship four times before — and all four times she won, often with breathing room between the second-place finisher.
Even Tom Forster, the women’s high-performance team coordinator, admits that no one in the world can compete with Biles when she’s on.
“If Simone’s in the meet you’re shooting for second,” said Forster, referring to a phrase commonly used leading up to Rio, “and it’s still that way.”
And that’s not to say Biles won’t have competition. In Boston she’ll go up against Ragan Smith, last year’s U.S. champ, and Morgan Hurd, who won the all-around world title. Smith, who was injured just before competing at worlds, went in as the prohibitive favorite, a status now pinned to Biles ahead of this year’s world championships, which begin Oct. 25 in Doha, Qatar.
In other words, the U.S. championships will feature three gymnasts capable of winning the coveted all-around world title, and still Biles stands out among them.
“She’s the greatest of all time, and she’s just so amazing,” said Hurd. “But I would hope one of us could come close to catching her.”
Their next opportunity begins Friday night.
For Biles, it’s her opportunity to win a fifth U.S. all-around title, but also to appreciate the sport in a way she wasn’t able to during the last quad.
Even though she hasn’t had a truly off day in competition since 2013, she knows gymnastics can be a fickle sport. Miss the bar on a release move, or land two inches wide on the balance beam, and scores can quickly drop. Injuries can take their toll, too, and Biles admitted she’s competing this weekend with her right big toe “shattered in like five pieces.”
And yet here she is, back on the competition podium once again, even though she’s already accomplished just about everything one could hope to accomplish in the sport.
Her performances might make her look superhuman at times, but her motivations remain humbly human.
“Especially walking away from Rio with all of the medals that I had won, I was like, you know what I don’t think it can get better than this,” she said. “Even in the long run, say I make Tokyo (in 2020) and I don’t walk with as many medals, you know, I tried. That’s all I can ask for from myself. So that’s what we’re working for.”
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009, including the gymnastics national championships and Olympic trials every year since 2011, on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.