Star gymnast Simone Biles, whose expected dominance at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics was interrupted by mental health issues and who has not competed since, could be planning a comeback a year before the Paris Games.
Biles, 26, is among the participants in an event called the US Classic on August 5 near Chicago, a qualifying competition for the national gymnastics championships that will take place August 24-27 in San Jose, California.
His entrance came without fanfare, and it’s unclear if he’ll be able to recapture the form that earned Biles four Olympic and seven overall gold medals, including the all-around title at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.
Many in the sport have wondered if Biles would retire from competition after the Tokyo Games and start her life outside of gymnastics. In the spring, she married NFL player Jonathan Owens, a defensive back for the Green Bay Packers.
But other gymnastics experts have suspected that Biles might try to compete again on the vault, which in some respects requires less training time than other events. His entry into the US Classic may indicate that Biles feels she can still be a force in national and international gymnastics, though USA Gymnastics said registering for the event “does not guarantee participation.”
Biles’ inclusion on the entry list, along with past champions and current contenders, doesn’t firmly state his intention to compete in Paris, but it does make it a possibility. Her coaches are French and she has previously said that it would be an honor to win a medal for them in her home country.
In Tokyo, Biles was expected to win at least three individual events as she bid to become the first gymnast to repeat as Olympic champion in more than half a century. She was heavily touted as perhaps the most anticipated star of those Games.
Biles was also one of the gymnasts targeted by Lawrence G. Nassar, a former team doctor, in a scandal that rocked the gymnastics world and helped expose widespread sexual abuse occurring in many Olympic-related sports. . She and others have publicly criticized USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee in ways that defied the conventions of a sport that encouraged athletes to remain quiet while competing.
Once the Tokyo Games began, the immense pressure and expectation seemed to wear Biles down, and she lost the ability to determine her spatial awareness in midair, a potentially dangerous condition known in gymnastics as “twisties.”
Withdrew from the team finals and did not compete in the individual all-around competition. Biles said at the time that she was shaking and unable to nap, and she described herself as not being in the proper “headspace” to continue and worried about hurting herself. “It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head,” she said.
She remained determined, however, and on the final day of the gymnastics competition in Tokyo, Biles regained her composure and with a modified routine won a bronze medal on the balance beam. “I didn’t expect to walk away with a medal,” she said at the time. “I was just going to go out and do this for myself.” She added: “Having one more chance to be at the Olympics meant a lot to me.”
While Biles faced some criticism for pulling out of various events in Tokyo, she was widely welcomed for her candor in speaking out about her mental health and acknowledging her vulnerability.
Along with other athletes such as swimmer Michael Phelps, tennis player Naomi Osaka, figure skater Gracie Gold, and basketball players DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love, Biles rejected the long tradition of stoicism in sports and represented a cultural shift in willingness to talk about anxiety, depression and pressure.
Sian L. Beilock, then president of Barnard College in New York (and now president of Dartmouth), a cognitive scientist who studies athletes, business people and students and why they succumb to pressure, said of Biles during the Tokyo Games: I applaud the fact that she was able to determine that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind and took a step back. What a difficult thing to do. There was a lot of pressure to continue. And she was able to find the strength to say, ‘No, this is not right.’
Biles and others’ willingness to speak confirmed that mental health issues affect everyone, Beilock said.
Juliet Macur contributed reporting.