By Frank DiRenna | July 28, 2018, 10:08 p.m. (ET)
Simone Biles (center) waves to the crowd as she stands on the podium with Riley McCusker (L) and Morgan Hurd at the 2018 GK U.S. Classic on July 28, 2018 in Columbus, Ohio.

 

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Two years ago, Simone Biles made history when she won four Olympic gymnastics gold medals in Rio.

When asked Friday to compare the 2016 Biles to the 2018 version who was returning to competition this weekend, she quickly responded that 2018 Biles would be better.

She wasn’t kidding.

Biles rallied in the final rotation to earn a commanding all-around win with a score of 58.70 at the GK U.S. Classic on Saturday at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus. Riley McCusker was second with a score of 57.50, while Morgan Hurd, the reigning world all-around champion, was third at 56.35.

“I feel pretty good with where I’m at this time of the year, and even from Rio I feel like I’ve improved, so I’m pretty proud of myself,” said Biles, who hadn’t competed since winning five medals, four of them gold, in Rio.

The U.S. Classic was the final qualifier for the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, which take place Aug. 16-19 in Boston and are part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity. Gymnasts who had not yet qualified — a group that included Biles — needed to score 52 in the all-around to move on. Biles, Sloane Blakely, Luisa Blanco and Jaylene Gilstrap qualified for nationals in Columbus.

Moving on to nationals was merely a formality for Biles, but she actually trailed McCusker entering the final rotation before rallying for the all-around win by recording a 15.20 on balance beam. Her solid routine concluded with a double back-handspring, full-in double back dismount.

Along with beam, Biles finished first on floor exercise (14.75) and had the highest score for a single vault routine (15.40), though Jade Carey won that event as Biles chose to only perform one vault, not two.

“We’re at a good place, and there’s still a lot to work on,” Biles said. “Work on the nerves, work on the consistency, work on the landing. At this point, we’re at a pretty good place.”

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While Biles was the star of the show for the 6,190 fans in attendance Saturday, McCusker quietly put together a strong performance herself, including a winning score of 15.00 on uneven bars.

“Coming into the meet, I was so excited to get back out there,” said McCusker, who has battled injuries since finishing third in the all-around at last year’s national championships. “I felt ready. I had a clear mind coming in and I felt that really showed in my gymnastics tonight.”

Biles opened her return to the sport on floor with new routine that she said has a Middle Eastern feel due to world championships being in Qatar this fall. Her performance featured an opening pass of a round-off back handspring double twisting double layout, an element that is considered the highest level skill on the apparatus.

She followed up that strong effort by performing a roundoff half on the table with a one and one-half twist dismount for a score of 15.4 on vault.

Despite an early fall on bars, Biles closed her routine with a dazzling double twisting double tuck flyaway dismount, though her score of 13.35 was by far her lowest of the night and 10th among all gymnasts.

“I had to reset or I would have been all over the place,” Biles said of her attitude entering the final rotation. “I was like, ‘Simone, just forget about bars and go in and do a nice clean beam routine and see where you’re at.’”

That’s exactly what she did, with her winning beam score ranking .65 higher than second-place McCusker’s.

Biles admitted she had to fight off a little rust competing in her first meet in two years.

“I feel like everything was a little bit off besides beam; beam was really good, but I was a little angry so even better,” she said. “I was struggling most of practice here on beam, so I don’t know how it ended up being best. On bars I’m so upset; I wish I could redo my routine. I hadn’t fallen once this entire training, and I really wanted to showcase bars. At least the end of the routine was good.

“It’s a good stepping-stone on the way to championships.”

Biles, who was born in Columbus but moved to Texas at a young age, performed in front of an adoring crowd, which included family members and friends in the second level donned in red t-shirts.

“It’s always exciting for my entire family to get the opportunity to come out,” said Biles, who now lives in the Houston area and trains at World Champions Centre, which is owned by her parents. “A lot of my family is from Columbus on my dad’s side, so it was really exciting. I’m excited when they come out and then we get to do the little after party.”

Biles excelled in the last Olympic quad, winning all three all-around world titles before winning the all-around, floor, vault and team gold medals at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, plus bronze on beam. In total, she has 14 medals from the world championships, marking the most in U.S. history, and five from the Olympics. No U.S. woman has more combined world and Olympic medals.

Following a planned break from the sport after Rio, Biles returned to the gym last summer with the goal of debuting two routines at the U.S. Classic before competing all four at the national championships.

Biles, however, announced on social media last week that she planned on competing on all four apparatuses in Columbus.

“For her, she knows where she’s at with preparation and she’s going to be able to build on that,” coach Laurent Landi said.

The junior competition kicked off the event Saturday as Leanne Wong finished first in all-around with a 55.35.

Junior competitors who had yet to qualify for nationals needed a 51 all-around score to advance; seven women achieved that mark Saturday.

Frank DiRenna is a reporter from Columbus. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.