Simone Biles has a shot at history at the Olympics while defending champion Russia stays home

Published 5:28 pm Tuesday, July 9, 2024

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Simone Biles and the rest of the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team don’t need to be reminded of what happened in Tokyo three years ago. Mostly because nearly all of them lived it.

Biles, reigning Olympic all-around champion Sunisa Lee, 2020 Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles and 2020 floor exercise champion Jade Carey were all there inside a nearly empty and oddly silent Ariake Gymnastics Centre during a memorable two weeks that altered the course of each of their careers and in ways both big and small led them back to the Games.

They are older now — Biles is 27, Carey is 24, Chiles is 23 and Lee is 21 — and eager for what they are calling a shot at redemption.

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“Everybody probably looks at the team, like ‘OK, they went to Tokyo and this, this and this happened. And what are they going to do here in Paris?’” Biles said. “But for us, I know we’re stronger than what we showed in Tokyo.”

Biles arrived in Japan as the face of the Games. She left without the gold medals most expected and instead at the center of the conversation about the intersection between mental health and sports.

Lee became a somewhat unexpected champion after Biles pulled out of multiple finals, a victory she struggled to believe she had rightfully earned. Carey packed a gold medal in her carry-on coming home but admits it felt weird competing as an individual after following an unusual path to the Games. Chiles cherished the team silver the Americans captured while Biles watched from the sideline but allowed she wasn’t at her best during the meet.

They’re all back — along with newcomer Hezly Rivera, just 16 — in hopes of authoring a different ending this time around.

“I think we really want a team gold,” said Lee, who overcame multiple kidney-related health issues to finish second behind Biles at the U.S. Olympic trials.

The American women are favored to win with defending champion Russia unable to participate as part of the fallout of the war with Ukraine. It just might not come as easy as Biles and company have made it seem while winning every major international competition (save, very notably, for one) since the 2011 world championships.

Brazil and powerhouse Rebeca Andrade have made massive strides over the last decade. France, China and Great Britain all have legitimate shots at making the podium.

Still, Biles knows a portion of those who tune in to watch will be waiting to see if what happened in Tokyo will repeat itself. She’s taking steps to make sure she’s in a better place this time around, including therapy, though she stressed the only reason she’s back is because she feels she owes it to herself.

“Nobody’s forcing me to do it,” Biles said. “I wake up every day and choose to grind in the gym and come out here and perform for myself just to remind myself that I can still do it.”

All she’s done since returning last summer following a two-year break was win her sixth world all-around championship while continuing to push her sport into places no one else dares go.

Biles, who married Chicago Bears safety Jonathan Owens in 2023, has brushed aside whether this will be her last time competing under the Olympic rings. That’s too far down the road. She and the rest of the U.S. team to “honor” the village that led them back to the unique spotlight only the Games provides.

“I feel like even for myself, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m still doing it. I’m still capable,’” she said. “So let’s go.”

A rivalry renewed

Like their female teammates, the Russian men are also out of the mix to defend the Olympic title they won in a taut final three years ago.

That leaves China and Japan to duel for the top spot at Accor Arena. The Japanese are led by defending all-around gold medalist Daiki Hashimoto, who has spent the last three years cementing his status as a worthy heir to countryman Kohei Uchimura, considered perhaps the greatest men’s gymnast of all time.

Hashimoto has won each of the last two world all-around championships, though China (2022) and Japan (2023) have split the last two team titles.

Closing the gap

A resurgent U.S. men’s program hopes to reach the Olympic podium for the first time since earning bronze in Beijing 16 years ago. The Americans finished third at worlds last fall, and a young team led by 20-year-old Frederick Richard, who believes what happens in Paris could just be the start.

“(We want to) give everything this Olympics and show that we have the potential we can bring home medals and that it’s (go hard) to make sure it’s not about medals anymore,” he said. “It’s about gold medals for 2028.”

An unlikely comeback

The American women are the first team in modern Olympic history to feature multiple all-around champions on its roster.

While Biles’ presence was seemingly assured the moment she came back, the road has been far bumpier for Lee. The last 18 months have seen her deal with massive weight fluctuations related to her kidney problems that limited her training and led her to telling longtime coach Jess Graba that she was ready to quit.

Only, she didn’t. Instead, Lee and her team of medical professionals were able to get a handle on her treatment, opening the door for Paris.

Biles’ presence also means Lee won’t feel the pressure to become the first Olympic champion in more than 56 years to repeat. Instead, she is hoping to come home with gold on the balance beam, an event that showcases her uncommon grace.

“I need to be gold because I feel like I always make the final and then I always mess up,” she said with a laugh. “But it’s still annoying.”