The Malta Independent 21 September 2018, Friday

Simone Biles electrifies on 1st day of US gymnastics championships

Saturday, 18 August 2018, 05:26 Last update: about 2 months ago

Simone Biles didn't come back after a two-year break from gymnastics to just win. That's not really what it's about for the Olympic champion. She's won enough — more than enough really — during her career. And she's got the medals to prove it.

The second act of her remarkable career is about something more. At 21, she has a greater appreciation of her own natural abilities than she did when she won four golds at the 2016 Olympics. She wants to find out where all that talent and all that power can take her and her sport.

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"I have nothing to prove," Biles said. "I can quit if I wanted to."

No chance. She's simply too curious to see where this thing goes.

Biles dominated the opening night of the US Championships on Friday, posting the highest scores on all four events on her way to an all-around total of 60.100. It's the first time since the all-around final in Rio de Janeiro two years ago that anyone's topped 60 points.

No one has really come close in the interim. Then again, no one is Biles. Reigning world champion Morgan Hurd put together the best night of her career as a senior and her score of 57.000 but will head into Sunday's finals a distant second behind Biles. The 17-year-old Hurd is well aware who she's up against.

"It's such an honor to be able to compete with the GOAT," Hurd said, using the popular acronym for Greatest Of All Time to describe Biles. "She's just such a legend and it's amazing. Clearly I'm watching her because you can't not watch her. Your eyes are just automatically drawn to her."

In that sense, nothing has changed for Biles. She returned to competition following a her post-Olympic sabbatical at the US Classic two weeks ago and won easily even with a handful of small errors she promised could clean up in time for nationals.

Though Biles wasn't quite perfect — she stepped out of bounds twice during her floor routine — she left little doubt she remains in a class by herself. And it's not close. The chasm between Biles and the rest of the world appears to be widening two years before the Tokyo Olympics. She tries to shut out the noise, instead focusing on the next challenge and not the prospect of living up to her own rapidly growing legend.

"It doesn't matter the gap between her and everyone else," co-coach Laurent Landi said. "She doesn't compete against everybody. She competes against herself."

And even on a night when she reached heights not seen since her star-making turn in Brazil, both Biles and Landi believe she's still not 100 percent. It will take time to get her to successfully harness her adrenaline on floor exercise. She stepped out of bounds during her first tumbling pass in Columbus. This time, she was so relieved to keep her first pass in bounds that she promptly found herself stepping outside the white lines on both her second and third runs.

"Every single meet she does she learns about herself again and it takes time," Landi said. "It took her so many years to get really comfortable with what she was doing and the reward was all the gold medals. It took some time ... but overall with technical aspect, mental aspect, she's back, so it's good."

She's even working in an upgrade or two. Biles did just one vault at the US Classics but added an Amanar for nationals. She drilled it with ease, seemingly falling out of the sky while finishing her 2 1/2 twists.

Hurd did her best to keep Biles at least within sight. She missed out on a chance to make a real run at Biles two weeks ago when Hurd fell off the beam. There were no major mistakes this time around. She finished in the top five on all four events, looking like someone who has taken a significant step forward over the last 10 months.

Riley McCusker is third, followed by Grace McCallum and Trinity Thomas. Defending national champion Ragan Smith, battling foot injuries, struggled. The 2016 Olympic alternate is tied for ninth after putting up a 53.750, well below her all-around scores at the 2017 championships when she easily rolled to victory.

Biles was just beginning the early stages of her return last August. She got serious about competing last fall and now appears to be even better than she was when she returned from the 2016 Olympics with a record-tying five medals. She'll likely stroll to her fifth national title on Sunday. After that it's preparing for the world championships in October before adding even more difficulty in preparation for the long run to the 2020 Summer Games.

Why?

"It's what I'm capable of," she said with a laugh.

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