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Simone Biles touched by fan support after triumphant return to mat

Simone Biles competed in her first gymnastics event since the 2021 Tokyo Olympics over the summer. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — When Simone Biles was introduced to the crowd at the beginning of the Core Hydration Classic on Saturday night, she ran out, waved to the crowd, and then paused, looking around the floor exercise mat for some guidance. She wasn’t sure where she was supposed to stand as the rest of the competitors were announced. A fellow gymnast waved her over, Biles laughed, and she headed to the edge of the mat.

It was the last time she didn’t look at home on the gymnastics floor. Biles scored a 59.100 to win her first all-around competition since the 2021 Olympic Trials. Starting on the uneven bars, Biles scored a 14.000. Just before her dismount, Biles lost her form and had to muscle back into position before doing her full-twisting double back.

The break on bars was the biggest mistake Biles had on Saturday night. On balance beam and floor exercise, she was steady and aggressive, just as the four-time Olympic gold medalist has always been. For vault, Biles showed she was just as capable of doing the high-flying Yurchenko double pike as she was in 2021. Though she landed off-center, she scored a massive 15.400 thanks to the vault’s difficulty.

The sold-out NOW Arena in suburban Chicago erupted in cheers for every move Biles made, whether it was warming up a vault or dancing with her friend and teammate Jordan Chiles. They chanted her name as she spoke with the media, and stayed well after the meet was over to show their appreciation.

“I think what shocks me the most is, everyone’s so supportive, like in the crowd, all of the girls, all of the signs, like after everything that transpired in Tokyo, and obviously, you know, they ‘at me’ in all those tweets and stuff, so I get a lot of that stuff. But the amount of outpouring love and support that I had on Twitter, on Instagram, and in the arena was just really shocking,” she said.

“And surprising to me that they still have so much belief in me, they still love me, and it just makes my heart warm, because it’s nice to come out here and have all that support, especially in a time like this where I was, like really nervous to compete again. But everyone, I can’t ask for more.”

The Classics were Biles’ first competition back since she pulled out of the Olympic team competition with “twisties,” a type of mental block gymnasts sometimes deal with that prevents them from knowing where they are in the air.

Since then, she’s spoken out on the importance of mental health for athletes. In her personal life, Biles married Green Bay Packers safety Jonathan Owens. She returned to training in 2022. According to her coach Cecille Landi, Biles stepped up her training after the wedding this spring.

“I had dinner with her, and it was this year and she told me she really wanted to get a chance to do it. After that, I would say after the wedding. Once everything was over, then we saw a shift in her training and commitment to being back,” Landi said on Friday.

Competing at the Classics was Biles’ first step back on the road to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

With her win Saturday, she qualified for the U.S. championships in San Jose at the end of August. Then, the country’s top gymnasts will take part in a selection camp to decide who will represent the United States at the world championships in Antwerp in October. She joked when asked whether she’s thinking about her plans for the Olympics.

“Right now, I think I should just embrace what happened today. Be happy for me, for my teammates. We’ll go into championships in a couple of weeks and work on those tweaks that we had today, but I’m in a really good spot and who knows? I’m not gonna think so far ahead,” Biles said.

“It’s just like when you get married, they ask you when you’re having a baby. You come to Classics, and they’re asking you about the Olympics. I think we’re just trying to take it one step at a time.”

Biles wasn’t the only star to make a big step back to competition at Classics. Sunisa Lee, the 2021 Olympic All-Around champion, did the vault and beam. After Lee finished on the beam, her first event back at the elite level since dealing with a kidney condition, she hugged her trainer and sobbed. She said on Friday that her biggest goal was to qualify for the U.S. championships, and she did just that with a 14.500 on beam and a 13.500 on vault.

“I think it went really well tonight. I’m super proud of myself for pushing. There were times when thought I wouldn’t be able to do this, but I definitely got over the fear and the doubt. I thought, I’m just going to put myself on the floor, let myself have fun. I think that’s exactly what I did,” Lee said after the meet.

Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles, 2021 Olympians, already qualified for the U.S. championships because they were on the 2022 world championship team that won gold. Still, they competed at Classics to help prepare them for the elite season. Since the Olympics, both have been competing at the college level, with Carey at Oregon State and Chiles at UCLA. Carey scored a 13.900 on beam, and Chiles scored a 13.900 on bars and 12.800 on beam.

Maggie Hendricks is a contributing writer for Just Women’s Sports. She also covers women’s sports for Bally Sports. Follow her on Twitter @maggiehendricks.