Simone Biles wins first meet since Rio Olympics with fall

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The jitters were obvious and unmistakable. A step out of bounds on floor exercise. A hop back on vault. An uncharacteristic slip off the uneven bars.

Simone Biles needed them. Maybe deep down, the Olympic gymnastics champion wanted them too, if only to help her figure out whether she was truly mentally ready to return to the sport she’s dominated for a half-decade.

The answer came before her balance beam set during the U.S. Classic on Saturday night when Biles found herself in second place heading into the final rotation after a sloppy uneven bars set.

Needing to score at least a 14.0 to avoid losing a meet for the first time in five years, Biles wasn’t focused on the pressure of living up to her own remarkable legacy. She was too busy being mad. And here’s the thing: she kind of liked it.

“I guess in that moment, I enjoyed being (ticked) off, yeah,” Biles said with a laugh.

It showed. Displaying the form that helped her make history at the 2016 Summer Games, the 21-year-old drilled a 15.2 to post an all-around score of 58.700, more than a point ahead of Riley McCusker and more than two points clear of reigning world champion Morgan Hurd.

MORE: Full Scores

The unbeaten streak is still alive. So is the gap between Biles and the rest of the world. Even after a 711-day layoff. Even after switching coaches. Even after growing up a bit. In the sport she’s come to define, there remains Biles and everyone else.

The proof came over the course of two hours when she posted the highest scores on vault (15.4), floor exercise (14.75, beam (15.2) and all-around in the world in 2018.

“There’s still a lot to work on — work on the nerves, work on the consistency, work on the landings — but for this point, at this time in the year, I think we’re in a pretty good place,” Biles said.

Or at the very least, a place no one else on the planet can get to at the moment. The scary part may be how many points Biles left out there. She won by 1.2 points even with major deductions on three events.

“It’s great to see that she still has it inside of her,” said Laurent Landi, who serves as Biles’ co-coach along with his wife, Cecile. “Now she needs to build on this and to take all the positives out of it.”

Biles admitted even she was curious how she’d respond in her return to competition following a two-year break following her staggering haul in Rio de Janeiro, when she tied an Olympic record by collecting five medals — four of them gold — that cemented her status as one of the best gymnasts ever. All before her 20th birthday.

She spent a year basking in the afterglow, enjoying — but not overindulging in — her newfound fame. She hit all the usual post-Olympic notes, doing some reality TV, publishing a book and traveling. She became more comfortable in her own skin, moved into an apartment and got a boyfriend.

There was never any really set timetable on when she might return, but she took her first tentative steps in her comeback late last summer. Things got serious when she hired the Landis as her new coaches last fall, intent not to simply recapture the form that captivated the 2016 Olympics but to push herself and her sport forward.

Things came together quickly. So quickly Biles entered all four events in Columbus and said matter-of-factly on Friday that she believes she’s already ahead of where she was when she starred in Rio.

Yet all that confidence couldn’t provide a true sense of calm. The adrenaline got to her more than once. It’s why she sailed out of bounds on her first tumbling pass on floor and couldn’t quite rein in her Cheng vault.

“It’s kind of hard to hold back,” Biles said.

And in the end, she didn’t.

She stressed uneven bars is where she’s made the biggest strides under Landi, hoping to turn her weakest event into a strength. Her right foot caught, however, early in her routine and she hopped down to the mat before receiving a brief pep talk from Landi. She popped back up and finished without so much as a wobble but her 13.50 put her behind McCusker heading to balance beam.

Despite her anger, she also found a sense of calm as all the old familiar feelings came back.

It’s not unusual for her to go last. It’s not unusual for her to know exactly what score she needs to win. It’s not unusual for her to deliver. These are — as the hashtag that resurfaced on Twitter reminded those who may have forgotten — #SimoneThings.

And it’s just the beginning. The 2020 Olympics are still two years off. Biles sent a message to the rest of the world in her return that she’s not coming back to the field. It’s up to everyone else to catch her.

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Three questions with Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea before the U.S. Championships

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2016 U.S. national champions Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea changed coaches to kick off the new season. Now under Dalilah Sappenfield in Colorado Springs, the oft-injured team said they’re healthier than ever heading into the U.S. Championships this weekend in Detroit.

The 2018 Four Continents Champions got off to a “slow start” this year, with a seventh place finish a silver medal on the Challenger Series. On the Grand Prix series, though, they had a fifth place finish in Japan and a silver medal-performance in France. It was their first-ever Grand Prix medal. They told reporters on a media teleconference ahead of nationals that both of their Grand Prix performances “showed growth.” Since then, they’ve spent time drilling on their programs.

Here’s what we learned from their teleconference:

1. They’ve made huge strides from where they are today compared to where they were this time before nationals a year ago.

Tarah Kayne: “There’s a huge difference for me specifically mentally and physically. Last year I was coming off of a right knee surgery where I had my patella tendon reconstructed. For nationals, we were just getting started back into competitive shape. We had maybe a handful of free skate run-throughs under our belts going into nationals. I was just starting to get comfortable doing throws again. We were purposefully trying to make our throws smaller to cut back the impact on my right knee, and to make it as safe as possible.”

“Now this season, I am feeling so much healthier and stronger. We’re making our throws bigger again! Which is a great feeling for me to feel comfortable and to be in that place physically. And also mentally to feel safe doing that. A huge part of that has been being at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and training under Dalilah who I find to be very empowering.”

Danny O’Shea: “We’re healthy. That’s been the goal for a very long time. We have been elusive for a lot of our career so far. Feeling healthy going into nationals is a very comforting place to be in. Not having to scramble, rely purely on mental toughness to overcome what may be a lack of physical training is a very nice place to be in.

2. They feel like they got a fresh start under their new coach.

TK: “With Dalilah, we started from scratch. We just came to her and let her mold us. Whatever she wanted us to do, we did. We didn’t question things. We didn’t say, ‘that’s not how we do things, how we’re used to.’ We just let her change whatever she wanted to change because we didn’t want to get the same results we have always gotten. We wanted to improve. We wanted to be bigger; we wanted to be better; we wanted to be faster.”

DO: “When you’re with a coach for seven years as a team, things are second-nature. There’s been definite differences in what we’ve been doing throughout the year. Some took some getting used to. Some were very comfortable right off the bat. Overall, it’s been a positive for us and that we’re in a very good place physically right now, which is helping us be able to train hard and keep pushing throughout the year.”

3. Kayne and O’Shea don’t want anyone else to miss out on the Olympics (like they did, as 2018 Olympic alternates) or the world championships. And with only one U.S. pair spot at Worlds this year, they know what’s at stake.

DO: “It’s on our minds.”

TK: “It’s a hard job. It’s a hard position to be in. I wish I wasn’t in this position. I would love to be walking into this with three spots and have a little bit of wiggle room… it’s a job. I have to go and do my job at nationals to get to Worlds. And then I have to do my job at Worlds to make sure no one else is in this position again… We’re capable at this place and time to accomplish that goal for ourselves and for the United States.”

DO: “We have always gone into nationals trying to skate our best, but this year we know we have to go and do that and we have to win. You wanna go into every competition to try and be your best, but with the way things are, we’re going in to win nationals and make that world team again, and go to Worlds and start turning this around. We don’t want to have one spot for Worlds or one spot for the Olympics any longer.”

MORE: Three questions with Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim

As a reminder, you can watch the U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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U.S. junior champions crowned in ladies’ and men’s events

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Gabriella Izzo is the newest junior ladies’ national champion, crowned this week at the U.S. Championships in Detroit. Junior ladies’ national champions of the past include eventual Olympians Mirai Nagasu, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Bradie Tennell.

Izzo had a commanding lead after the short program, with 60.97 points, where she pulled off her first-ever triple Lutz, triple loop combination in competition. (However, it was deemed under-rotated.) Regardless, her 111.45 points in the free skate combined for 172.42 points and the gold medal.

Audrey Shin, who actually won the free skate by just over a point, earned the silver medal with 165.61 points. Emilia Murdock took home the bronze with 154.48 points.

On the junior men’s side, Ryan Dunk rebounded from second after the short program to win the event. His 132.85-point free skate was enough to crack the 200-point overall score, the only man in the field to do so, and win the gold.

Men’s junior champions include eventual world champion Nathan Chen (twice) as well as Olympians Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown.

Dinh Tran finished second with 196.03 points after a fourth-place short program. Joonsoo Kim, who lead after the short program on Tuesday, ended up with the bronze medal with 187.95 points.

NBC Sports Gold’s “Figure Skating Pass” will live stream each junior competition and replays will also be available on-demand. Check out the full schedule and live streaming information here.

The junior rhythm dance took place earlier Wednesday. Siblings Caroline and Gordon Green lead the field with 70.82 points, while Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik are second with 65.92 points. The brother-sister team of Oona and Gage Brown are in third with 63.34 heading into Friday’s junior free dance.

Also Wednesday, Laiken Lockley and Keenan Prochnow took the lead in the junior pairs’ short program. The junior pairs’ free skate is Thursday. Kate Finster and Balazs Nagy are second, followed by Isabelle Martins and Ryan Bedard in third.

MORE: Full streaming schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the junior and senior U.S. Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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