The gymnastics highlight of the 2023 U.S. Classic happened before it went live on television. Simone Biles, in warmups for her first competition since the Tokyo Olympics two years ago, stuck her soon-to-be eponymous vault, a Yurchenko double pike that she debuted at the 2021 Classic. It has yet to be named for her because the Texas gymnast hasn’t done it at a major international meet, such as the Olympics or world championships. But judging from the 26-year-old’s dazzling gymnastics showcase over the weekend, it’s only a matter of time before it bears the Biles name.

Of course, Biles would never content herself with just one highlight for the night. The actual competition contained several more. Biles started on bars, an event that she has long acknowledged as the most challenging for her. And it proved to be a bit of a struggle, especially toward the end of the routine when her final pirouette went off course. This error would’ve sent an athlete with less core strength down to the mats. But she somehow managed to pull the skill back on top of the bar and swing through to her dismount. The crowd let out an earsplitting roar, as it did every time her name was mentioned. Biles smiled almost sheepishly. 

The balance beam came next, and there she was as efficient as she was impressive. Biles got up, got the job done, and then got off, all with only one slight bobble and a couple of steps on her dismount. Her beam coach, Cecile Landi, had noted that this routine clocked in around 65 seconds, well short of the 90-second max. “Do what you have to do and get off,” Landi said after podium training on Friday. The longer you’re up there, the more opportunity there is for error.  

At the floor exercise, she hit all four difficult passes, though she didn’t resurrect her triple twisting double somersault. Landi noted that they decided not to include some of Biles’s most difficult elements because they didn’t confer enough of a scoring advantage to be worth the risk. She said they’re focused on making sure Biles feels comfortable, physically and mentally, with all of the skills she competes. Still, it’s not like one would characterize Biles’s floor routine as easy, especially not the front full through to the double twisting double somersault, a new tumbling line she debuted on Saturday. For almost any other gymnast, Biles’s tumbling would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, especially when put together in the same routine. But these four tumbling lines appeared quite comfortable for her. 

Next, Biles rotated to the vault, her final apparatus of the night. She did the Yurchenko double pike again, almost as well as she did it in the warm-ups. She didn’t quite stick the landing this time, instead taking just a small step back and to the side, over the boundary line. This vault, however, felt more exciting and climactic than her warm-up, by dint of the sold-out crowd cheering and because this was Biles’s final rotation of the night. 

The GOAT’s first full competition since Tokyo was officially complete, and now her comeback is fully underway.  Biles did a little celebratory dance in concert with Tokyo teammate Jordan Chiles before dismounting the podium and awaiting her score. She earned a 59.1 in her competitive return, the highest all-around total of the new cycle.

After the competition, Biles spoke to the media about her comeback, which had been quietly announced via USA Gymnastics press release. Sitting on the podium, she seemed at ease even as she was pressed by a throng of journalists there to cover what would usually be a low-stakes national championships qualifier, if not for the return of the greatest gymnast of all time. 

(Because she hadn’t competed in two years, Biles was one of the few gymnasts at the Classic who actually needed scores to qualify for nationals later this month. Olympic all-around champion Sunisa Lee also needed to qualify at this competition, though her chances seemed a bit more tenuous; for the last five months, Lee’s training has been inconsistent due to dealing with serious kidney illness. One of the non-Simone highlights of the meet was Lee’s gorgeous beam routine and her subsequent cathartic cry with the USA Gymnastics team doctor, who has been supporting Lee since her diagnosis. Like Biles, Lee ended up qualifying to nationals.)

There had been much speculation as to the process of Biles getting back into training, and the gymnast cleared up the timeline for reporters. She said she returned to training last September in a low-key manner, to start getting into shape. Once 2023 started, she ramped up to two workouts a day, but still wasn’t training at full intensity. Early in the year, Biles had ongoing professional commitments, and she was still planning her wedding to NFL player Jonathan Owens

It wasn’t until right after the May wedding that Biles told Landi she was ready to go all in on training. “We knew that we kind of had to buckle down and stop doing events and all of this stuff,” she said. The gymnast commented that she thought she was in better shape now than she had been in 2021. Now is not the time for any of the gymnasts in the field to be competing at 100 percent—they want to peak at the world championships in the fall—but she said she felt more prepared than she had at past Classics. 

Biles commented that she was shocked by the way fans embraced her all weekend long, an admission that surprised me. The overwhelming response I’ve seen since USA Gymnastics announced Biles’s return to competition was excitement. The tickets to the event quickly sold out, and press credentials were difficult to come by. “I think what shocks me the most is that everyone’s so supportive, like in the crowd, all of the girls, all of the signs, like after everything that transpired in Tokyo,” she said.

After everything that transpired in Tokyo.

As much as athletes might insist on their humanity, on how they’re more than the sports in which they excel—and they absolutely are—it’s hard for them to overcome the feeling that they’re only as good as their last competition. And while Biles’s Olympics ended on a note of uplift and helped spur necessary conversations around athlete mental health, it’s clear that the Games didn’t go how she wanted them to. 

Biles made that point explicit later. “I think it’s kind of obvious,” she said of her motivation to resume her elite gymnastics career. “I mean, you saw what happened, pulling out of five finals.” 

She offered more background to her experience in Tokyo, explaining that someone inside the U.S. gymnastics program referred to her as their “gold medal token,” which is also how the media spoke of her, even if they didn’t use those exact words. The expectation that she would win at least a couple gold medals was reasonable based on her past results, but it’s evident, now and also then, that viewing and discussing Biles in this manner dehumanized her. People thought of what they might get out of her—another gold medal to beef up the U.S. tally, points to win the team title, monster TV ratings—and didn’t consider what she might need. 

Added to this were the unique challenges and profound isolation caused by the COVID restrictions in place at the Tokyo Games. Biles’s friends and family could not be there. Socializing with other athletes was extremely limited. There was simply no reprieve from the pressure. “We’re still dealing with COVID, but not to that capacity,” Biles said Saturday. “We’re gonna get to have our family, our friends go, and we’ll get to be in the village. So the experience will be so different that we won’t be stuck in our thoughts all day.” 

It seems pretty plain that she’s speaking of her hopes for the 2024 Paris Olympics, but she was careful not to name the city or the year in her remarks. In fact, she jokingly chided those who’ve wanted her to make her intentions for Paris more explicit. “It’s just like when you get married, they ask you when you’re having a baby,” Biles said. “You come to Classics, they’re asking you about the Olympics.” The only future Olympics she mentioned were the ones to come in Los Angeles, when Biles will be in her early thirties. “Don’t ask about 2028, because listen,” she said with a laugh. “Listen.”

For now, we’ll take Biles’s word that L.A. 2028 is out of the question. And it doesn’t really matter that she won’t come right out and say that her goal is next year’s Paris Olympics. It’s simply enough to have her back—happy and competing on her own terms. That’s all we should’ve ever wanted or needed from her.