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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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier top pairs’ short at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier
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World champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier lead after the pairs’ short program in what may be their last U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Knierim and Frazier, who last March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, tallied 81.96 points to open the four-day nationals on Thursday.

They lead by 15.1 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe going into Saturday’s free skate in San Jose, California. The top three teams from last year’s event — which Knierim and Frazier missed due to him contracting COVID-19 — are no longer competing together.

After nationals, a committee selects three U.S. pairs for March’s world championships in Japan.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Before the fall Grand Prix Series, the 31-year-old Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“I don’t like to just put it out there and say it is the last or not going to be the last because life just has that way of throwing curveballs, and you just never know,” Frazier said this month. “But I would say that this is the first nationals where I’m going to go in really trying to soak up every second as if it is my last because you just don’t know.”

Knierim is going for a fifth U.S. title, which would tie the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka Ina, Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner, Karol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Knierim is also trying to become the first female pairs’ skater in her 30s to win a national title since 1993. Knierim and ice dancer Madison Chock are trying to become the first female skaters in their 30s to win a U.S. title in any discipline since 1995.

After being unable to defend their 2021 U.S. title last year, Knierim and Frazier reeled off a series of historic results in what had long been the country’s weakest discipline.

They successfully petitioned for an Olympic spot and placed sixth at the Games, best for a U.S. pair since 2002. They considered retirement after their world title, which was won without the top five teams from the Olympics in attendance. They returned in part to compete as world champions and to give back to U.S. skating, helping set up younger pairs for success.

They became the first U.S. pair to win two Grand Prix Series events, then in December became the first U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix Final podium (second place). The world’s top pairs were absent; Russians banned due to the war in Ukraine and Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China leaving competition ice (for now).

Knierim and Frazier’s real test isn’t nationals. It’s worlds, where they will likely be the underdog to home favorites Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who edged the Americans by 1.3 points in the closest Grand Prix Final pairs’ competition in 12 years.

Nationals continue with the rhythm dance and women’s short program later Thursday.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships scores, results

2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships
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Full scores and results from the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose …

Pairs Short Program
1. Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier — 81.96
2. Emily Chan/Spencer Howe — 66.86
3. Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea —- 65.75
4. Valentina Plazas/Maximiliano Fernandez — 63.45
5. Sonia Baram/Danil Tioumentsev —- 63.12
6. Katie McBeath/Nathan Bartholomay —- 56.96
7. Nica Digerness/Mark Sadusky — 50.72
8. Maria Mokhova/Ivan Mokhov —- 46.96
9. Grace Hanns / Danny Neudecker — 46.81
10. Linzy Fitzpatrick/Keyton Bearinger — 45.27
11. Nina Ouellette/Rique Newby-Estrella — 43.99

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

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