Simone Biles makes gymnastics return at U.S. Classic, knowing she has more to give

Simone Biles
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At the end of Simone Biles‘ most recent gymnastics meet, she lifted five gold medals from around her neck in an image shared around the globe.

That was at the October 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart. Biles performed at the peak of her powers, but it was believed to foreshadow a farewell tour. Curtains were to fall in August 2020 in Tokyo.

“Everybody has to end it some time,” she said that autumn evening in Germany, after upping her career world champs medal counts to records of 25 total and 19 golds. “You can’t keep going for the rest of your life.”

On Saturday, Biles competes for the first time in 587 days at the U.S. Classic in Indianapolis (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app). It’s a tune-up for the U.S. Championships and Olympic Trials, both in June.

She is the last American (global?) sports megastar to return to the field of play during the pandemic. Biles is all but assured a place on the U.S. team for Tokyo before she salutes a single judge, so these meets are about ramping up for the rescheduled Tokyo Games that open July 23.

“It’s more stressful whenever I go out and compete,” Biles told NBC in February. “It’s just scary. Because I go out, and I’m like, can I do it again? Can I be this good? And can I repeat what I did last year, last time, last Olympics?”

Biles never felt so prepared for a season of spring and summer meets as on that March 2020 morning. She entered her family’s gym, the World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas.

Biles checked her phone as she gathered grips to mount the uneven bars. She saw a text from her older brother: the Olympics are postponed. Biles teared up. Could she put off retirement for an extra year?

Training partner Jordan Chiles was there.

“I just don’t know if I can do this,” Biles told her.

Biles wasn’t always certain to come back after winning four Olympic titles in Rio. She voiced doubts again last spring.

“She was saying she was done,” said Biles’ mom, Nellie. “She could not see herself hang on for another year.”

Biles was out of the gym for seven weeks due to pandemic measures. She chose to return.

“What motivates me is to strive to be better than I was before,” she said.

ON HER TURF: Silence is compliance: Morgan Hurd’s call to action

Biles turned 23 the week before the Olympic postponement. While not the oldest U.S. elite gymnast, she is older than every previous female U.S. Olympic gymnast since 2004. She would be the oldest American woman to compete in an Olympic all-around final since Kathy Johnson in 1984, according to Olympedia.org.

Women’s gymnastics was a teen-dominated sport from the 1970s until the last few years. Biles is the only non-teen to win a U.S. all-around title since 1971.

Others recently excelled in their 20s and beyond, from Aly Raisman to 45-year-old Oksana Chusovitina (going to her eighth Olympics this summer) to the current women of Japan, the first nation without a teen on its Olympic team event roster since 1964.

Biles returned to the gym last May, and the aches, pains and soreness were there. Her recovery is slower than in past years. Daily naps — two hours is the rarely achieved goal — are essential.

Last winter, another gymnast asked how long she’s been in the sport. Seventeen years, Biles answered.

“I’m not even 17 yet!” the gymnast replied.

Biles compared one year on a gymnast’s body to five years on somebody else in wear and tear. The nation’s best compete at a handful of meets every year, but training is daily. It’s 34 hours per week for Biles.

“But I feel stronger this year than last year, physically, mentally,” Biles, who since Rio cracked a rib, broke at least one toe and won world titles with a kidney stone, said in February.

That sentiment manifests in a vault that no woman has performed — a Yurchenko double pike. Biles plans to do it in competition before the Olympics. It could be the fifth “Biles” skill named after her in the sport’s Code of Points among floor exercise, balance beam and vault.

Video of that vault is here.

As Biles’ father, Ron, said, “She does some crazy stuff.”

ON HER TURF: Jordan Chiles rekindled her love of gymnastics by moving 1,800 miles

When she retires, which could be this summer or in 2024, Biles wants to be remembered not just for taking gymnastics to new heights.

“Also for making a change for the newer generations to come, so that they feel comfortable entering the sport,” she said.

Biles came forward as an abuse survivor in January 2018, during a near-two-year break from competition. Since, she used her platform to hold people and organizations in power accountable, most notably USA Gymnastics.

“Gymnastics wasn’t the only thing I was supposed to come back for,” she said. “I had to come back to the sport to be a voice.”

Biles has four meets from now through August after not competing at all for 19 months. At the end of the final one, in Tokyo, she may well be photographed lifting five gold medals once again.

“I’m just doing what I love and sharing that with the world,” she said.

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Luz Long’s Olympic silver medal for sale from Jesse Owens long jump duel

Jesse Owens, Luz Long
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One of the most consequential Olympic medals ever awarded is on the auction block — the silver medal captured in 1936 by Germany’s Luz Long, the long jumper who walked arm in arm through the stadium with Jesse Owens to celebrate their triumphs while Adolf Hitler watched from the stands.

Long’s family has decided to auction the medal and other collectibles from the German jumper’s career. Long was killed in World War II in 1943.

The auction house selling the medal has labeled Long’s collection “The Beacon of Hope.”

“The story of Jesse Owens never seems to end,” said Long’s granddaughter, Julia Kellner-Long, in a phone interview from her house in Munich. “My grandfather has always been inspirational and influential in the way I choose to see the world, and this is something I think the world outside needs. Now more than ever. It gives us hope.”

Long cemented himself in Olympic lore during the Berlin Games when he was the first to congratulate Owens on his triumph in the long jump. Later they walked around the stadium together and posed for pictures.

There’s also the story Owens told of Long approaching him after he fouled on his first two attempts in the preliminary round. With only one more try to make the final, Owens said Long suggested he take off a foot in front of the board, to assure he wouldn’t foul on his last try. Owens took that advice and went on to win the title — one of four he captured in Berlin — with a then-Olympic record jump of 8.06 meters (26 feet, 5 1/2 inches).

Owens was Black, and his stirring success at those Olympics was said to have annoyed Hitler by puncturing the Nazi myth of Aryan racial superiority.

The camaraderie between Owens and Long, and the relationship that ensued between the men and their families, are often held up as the prime example of what the Olympics are supposed to be about — a peaceful coming together of people from different countries and cultures who set their differences aside in the spirit of competition.

“It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me,” Owens said, years later. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.”

The decision to sell came shortly after Luz’s son (and Julia’s father), Kai, died at age 80. Kellner-Long said the great responsibility of preserving her grandfather’s memorabilia should be passed onto an individual, or museum, that has the time and resources to do so. The family also wanted to use the sale to rekindle the story of Long and Owens.

“Even 86 years later, shining a beacon of hope is an important and realistic value, especially in a time of increasing racism, increasing exclusion and hatred,” Kellner-Long said.

The auction house started the bidding for Long’s medal at $50,000, and estimated the value at somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million. The bidding runs through Oct. 15. The value of Olympic medals on the open market varies widely. One of Owens’ four gold medals from 1936 fetched $1.46 million. Bill Russell’s gold medal from the 1956 Olympics recently sold for $587,500.

David Kohler of SCP Auctions, which is conducting the sale, said the medal is about Long, but also “the story of the courageousness and the athlete and what he did there.”

Long didn’t live long enough to see his legacy play out. He was killed in 1943 in the battle of St. Pietro on the Italian island of Sardinia. Shortly before that, he wrote a letter to Owens, one he predicted would be “the last letter I shall ever write.”

In it, Long asked Owens to go to Germany after the war and find his son.

“Tell him, Jesse, what times were like when we were not separated by war,” Long wrote. “I am saying — tell him how things can be between men on this earth.”

Owens and Kai Long met several times over the years, including at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in 1966. Owens later was a best man at Kai’s wedding.

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Jenny Simpson, most decorated U.S. miler, shifts focus with new Puma sponsorship

Jenny Simpson
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Jenny Simpson, the most decorated U.S. female miler in history, plans to return to racing on Sunday with a new shoe sponsor, Puma.

Simpson, whose last race was the Cherry Blossom 10-mile road race in Washington, D.C., in September 2021, according to World Athletics, will run what she called “a little rust-buster” at the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C.

“My intention is to turn my focus to the roads,” Simpson, 36, wrote in an email. “I have some great PUMA spikes that I love so the track isn’t off the table. But my emphasis will be road racing.”

Last year’s Cherry Blossom was her first race longer than 5,000 meters, according to World Athletics. What are the chances she eventually moves up to the marathon distance?

“This new chapter is an exploration,” she answered. “I’m going to let the races, training, and coaching guide the next steps as they come. I know I can physically do it, it’s a matter of whether I can be great at it and my team and I will only go there if we think we can be competitive. So, let’s say for chances… 51% :)”

Simpson made her first Olympic team in 2008 in the 3000m steeplechase, then in 2012 and 2016 in the 1500m, earning a bronze medal in Rio. She is the lone U.S. woman to win a world 1500m title (2011) or an Olympic 1500m medal.

From 2007 through 2019, Simpson finished in the top three in one of the 1500m, 5000m or 3000m steeplechase at all 13 annual USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. Last year, she was 10th in the Olympic Trials 1500m in a bid to become the oldest U.S. Olympic 1500m runner in history, according to Olympedia.org.

Simpson focused much of her time this year helping her Colorado community heal and rebuild from a late December fire. She did not enter the USATF Outdoors for the first time since 2006.

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