Simone Biles

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Simone Biles returns to the gym, going from mental drain to physical pain

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For Simone Biles, this was supposed to be the stretch run of a legendary career.

Instead, she returned to her gym on May 18 with long-term thoughts of waiting 14 months until the Tokyo Olympics. And the immediate aches of a world-class gymnast who just missed nearly two months of regular training.

“After that amount of time off, it kind of sucks because your body hurts and then you get really sore,” Biles said in a pre-recorded ESPNW interview that aired Thursday. “So you just have to get back into the swing of things. But it felt nice to see my coaches, my teammates, and just to be back on the equipment and in the environment.”

In that same Texas gym three months ago, Biles had a far different outlook. One that would have put fear into any gymnast who still harbored ambition of ending her near-seven-year win streak.

“I never felt more ready this early in the season,” she said. “I was so ready for the Olympics to be this year.”

Biles repeated in interviews the last two months that the Olympic postponement to 2021 was devastating. Thoughts zig-zagged: How do I go on another year, at age 23, in a sport recently dominated by (but not limited to) teenagers?

“I’m getting pretty old,” she said in the interview published Thursday. “Will I be at the top of my game?”

Biles proved the last two years — after a year off — that she can win — and comfortably — while not at her best. She grabbed the 2018 World all-around title by a record margin — with two falls. Last year, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championships history. In Tokyo, she can become the first woman to repeat as Olympic all-around champion, and the only one older than 20, in more than 50 years.

This for a gymnast whose early goal was to earn a college scholarship. Biles did, to UCLA, but had to give it up by turning professional.

“So I’ve exceeded that,” Biles said. “And then I wanted to go to world championships and Olympics, and I’ve been to five worlds and one Olympic Games. So, I’d be more than happy [to walk away].”

After gymnastics, Biles has another goal — to be a voice for foster kids. She was in foster care multiple times before being adopted at age 6 by grandparents Ron and Nellie.

Those plans, along with so much else for Biles and so many others, have been pushed back a full year.

“I was already being mentally drained and almost, not done with the sport, but just going into the gym and feeling tired and being like, OK, I’m going to get my stuff [done], get out,” she said. “We have this one end goal, and now that it’s postponed another [year], it’s just like, how are we going to deal with that? We’re already being drained, and so it’s to keep the fire in the sport within yourself alive.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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Simone Biles addresses Class of 2020 during Facebook graduation

Simone Biles
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Simone Biles, who had to give up public school to focus on elite gymnastics, sent her well wishes to the Class of 2020 during a special virtual Facebook graduation event on Friday.

“As an athlete, there’s nothing quite like the bus ride home after a win,” Biles said 90 minutes into the online event. “You’re exhausted and could probably use a shower. OK, if you just finished competing, you definitely need a shower, but bottom line, you’re happy. Well graduates, today is your bus ride home, your victory lap, and it’s our chance to tell you that we know how hard you worked to bring home that diploma. I know you’re missing what was supposed to be your medal ceremony, but that ceremony doesn’t change a thing. You’ve already won. So today let’s celebrate that. We are so proud of everything you’ve accomplished. Congratulations to all the graduates out there. You did it.”

Biles, the 23-year-old, four-time Rio Olympic champion, recorded a video to join celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Miley Cyrus as part of the Facebook event.

Almost a decade ago, Biles made the difficult decision to home school for high school rather than attend a traditional school setting in the Houston area.

“All my friends went” to public school, she said in 2016, according to the Washington Post. “The football games, just being a normal kid — I don’t think anyone really wants to be home-schooled by themselves for four years.”

When Biles earned her diploma in the summer of 2015, her mom, Nellie, asked if she made the right decision, according to the Post.

“Well, mom,” she reportedly said, via Nellie, “I have lost so much. By giving up public school, I lost a lot of friends because we don’t have the same interests. I don’t do this ‘hanging out,’ whatever that is. I’ve never gone to someone’s party, so I don’t know what they do there. And I’ve never gone to a homecoming; never a prom.”

MORE: Top U.S. gymnasts disagree with Tokyo Olympic age rule

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Why Simone Biles came back for a second Olympics

Simone Biles
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Simone Biles could have retired on top — four gold medals in Rio to cap perhaps the most dominant Olympic cycle in history. Her reasoning for returning to the gym after a one-year break was part unfinished business, part why not.

Start with her only misstep in Rio. Biles bobbled on a front tuck in the balance beam final, forcing her to grab the apparatus with both hands to keep from falling off altogether. The mistake cost her a full point. She missed gold by .733 of a point, but still took bronze.

“Besides messing up on beam at the Olympics, the one reason I would want to try and come back is that, years from now, 20 years from now … I never want to think back and say, ‘Wow, I wish I would’ve tried,'” Biles said in a USA Gymnastics video early in 2018, before her return meet that spring. That latter thought echoed Michael Phelps, who said he unretired in 2013 because he didn’t want “any what-ifs.”

Biles’ Rio Olympic individual apparatus finals — including golds on floor exercise and vault — are featured in NBCSN’s Olympic Games Week programming on Sunday. A full schedule is here.

Before the Rio Games, Biles talked openly about ending her gymnastics career at those Olympics.

At one point, “I didn’t think she was going to come back,” after Rio, then-coach Aimee Boorman said last year, “because she was saying she didn’t want to come back.”

Biles remembered, too.

“Yes and no,” she said last year. “I really did in that moment feel like I was going to be done, but there was a slight chance that I would want to come back. Everyone’s like, oh, you’re going to come back, and I feel like I fought it more.”

When Biles did decide to make a second Olympic run, she laid out a timeline: take a full year off after Rio before returning to the gym. By then, Boorman had moved from Texas to Florida. Biles, wanting to stay at her family’s gym near her native Houston, took on new coaches: Cecile and Laurent Landi, who had guided Madison Kocian to uneven bars silver in Rio.

“I never said, oh, take a year and then we’ll see, or maybe I need two years,” she said. “It was always just, I’m going to take one year, rest the body, physically, mentally from gymnastics and then get back into it.”

MORE: NBCSN Olympic Games Week TV, live stream schedule

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