The announcement that Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time and hometown icon of Spring, Texas, was returning to elite competition came with little fanfare. There was no interview with a major publication. No segment on Today or Good Morning America. No video package created by USA Gymnastics as she did in 2018

Instead, the news arrived by way of a USA Gymnastics press release announcing the roster for the August 5 U.S. Classic, an annual competition that serves as the final opportunity for female gymnasts to qualify to the national championships a few weeks later. Biles was one of three former Olympic gold medalists who were announced in that communique. The others were Sunisa Lee, the 2021 all-around champion, and Jade Carey, the winner of the floor title in Tokyo. But those two gymnasts had previously declared their intention to vie for a spot on the Paris 2024 team, and neither had been absent from gymnastics competition in the two years since the last Games. 

Biles, on the other hand, hasn’t set foot on the competition floor for quite a while. Two years to the day, to be exact. Her last time in front of an audience was August 3, 2021, in the balance beam final at the Tokyo Olympics. It was the first final Biles had elected to compete in, even though she’d qualified for all of them. For days, the gymnast had been withdrawing from the medal rounds. First she pulled out of the team final after the very first rotation, the vault, went dangerously off course for her. 

Then she pulled out of the all-around final she had been heavily favored to win. Then from the vault final she was also expected to win, then from the uneven bars, and finally from the floor exercise, another apparatus she was expected to dominate. 

All that remained was the balance beam final. Though Biles was the defending world champion, she wasn’t the standout favorite the way she had been on some of the other pieces. But this is where Biles decided to make her final stand in Tokyo. 

The interior of the routine she performed in finals was the same as the one she had been performing in all of the competitions leading up to Tokyo. The major change came at the end—instead of doing the twisting double back dismount she had been doing for nearly a decade, she performed a straight double pike, a safety concession to the “twisties” that caused Biles to get lost in the air during the team final. In the post-meet presser, she noted that she probably hadn’t performed this dismount since she was twelve years old. After she landed this simpler dismount, Biles seemed overjoyed and relieved. The audience, sparse due to COVID restrictions, seemed to share Biles’s catharsis. For that routine, she earned a bronze, her only individual medal of the Games. “I’m pretty happy,” Biles said in the post-beam final presser. “Just to have one more opportunity to compete at the Olympics meant the world to me.” 

Biles’s withdrawal from the bulk of the competition in Tokyo was the story of the Games, and much of the discourse around it focused on mental health and well-being. Biles was heralded for having put her safety first, a remarkable feat in a sport that was—and still is—reckoning with decades of abuse, and where competing while injured has been normalized to a pathological degree. In 2018, Biles came forward as a survivor of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics women’s team doctor convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault. She spoke wrenchingly of the emotional difficulty of having to compete at events hosted by the institution that had enabled Nassar when she was a teenager. While she was hardly Nassar’s only victim—his tally goes into the hundreds—Biles was the only publicly known survivor who was still competing for the scandal-ridden governing body. At the time of the postponed Olympics, Biles was one of many plaintiffs who were suing USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committees for their responsibility regarding Nassar’s sexual abuse. (USA Gymnastics and USOPC settled with the Nassar survivors in December 2021.)

Adding to this pressure, everyone expected Biles to win almost every available gold medal and to lead the U.S. team to the title over a surging Russian team. And she was to do this without her family—who weren’t allowed to travel to Tokyo because of pandemic restrictions—there to support her.

Biles appeared anxious on the opening day of competition, making several uncharacteristic mistakes. Though she still qualified for every final, it was evident that she was upset by what she put out on the floor and commented on social media that she had been feeling the strain. “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” she wrote on Instagram after preliminaries.

And then came that vault in the team final. Biles had planned a difficult one—the two and a half twisting Yurchenko variation—but this skill was old hat to her. She had been doing the vault in competition for nearly a decade at that point. If she ever experienced trouble with this maneuver, it was on the landing. Sometimes Biles struggled to contain her immense power and took large, bounding steps forward after touching down. But in the air, it was usually flawless. 

In Tokyo, though, it was in the air that everything went wrong. Biles appeared to lose her bearings. Her head was turned one way, her body the other. She opened her arms too early, which stopped her rotation at just one and a half of the planned twists. Biles landed in a deep squat, chest down, straining to stay upright enough to avoid putting her hands on the mat. That she managed to land feetfirst and uninjured after getting so thoroughly lost was nothing short of miraculous. Had she not planted her feet into the mat—had she instead landed bottom-first—the vault would’ve been nullified and her score would’ve been a zero. That mark would’ve sent the U.S. to the bottom of the team rankings, where they would have remained for the rest of the competition. There is no recovery from a zero on vault. Just ask the Russian team at the 2007 world championships

Biles stood up and saluted the judges, a look of shock on her face. She dismounted the podium and within a few minutes left the competition floor. A short while later came the announcement that Biles would be withdrawing from the rest of the team final. 

In the brief press conference following the team medal ceremony, Biles referenced mental health and self-care as contributing to her decision to withdraw, but not as much as she emphasized her concern that by continuing in the competition, she might jeopardize a chance to win the team medal. “I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat,” she said. ”I didn’t want to risk the team a medal for kind of my screw-ups because they’ve worked way too hard for that.” 

She recalled telling the coaches: “ ‘I think the girls need to do the rest of the competition without me.’ And they were like, ‘I promise you, you’re fine. We watched you warm up.’ And I said, ‘No, I know I’m going to be fine, but I can’t risk a medal for the team. So I need to call it.’ ”

Save for Biles, the rest of the U.S. team was composed of Olympic newbies. Biles had plenty of medals at that point; the other gymnasts did not. And two of her teammates—Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum—hadn’t qualified to any individual finals. The team competition was their only shot at a medal. In the team final, low scores are not dropped, as they are in qualifications. If Biles kept competing, she might’ve cost the team a medal of any kind. 

The strategic dimensions of Biles’s decision, one that the gymnast herself explicitly stated, were largely discarded as the discourse around that day in Tokyo evolved, which is completely understandable. The topic of athlete mental health was already a major issue in several sports. Prior to Tokyo, tennis pro Naomi Osaka had withdrawn from the French Open and Wimbledon, citing mental health concerns. (During the post–team finals presser, one journalist asked Biles if she had been inspired by Osaka’s decision earlier in the year.) Michael Phelps, the most medaled athlete in Olympic history, produced and appeared in The Weight of Gold, a documentary about the mental health challenges faced by elite athletes. And Biles had previously referenced her psychological struggles, especially those related to the trauma of being a sexual abuse survivor. The gymnast continued to address mental health in her post-Tokyo interviews and comments. 

The self-care and mental health narrative has the benefit of being true and important, if incomplete, when it comes to explaining Biles’s withdrawal. Yes, she decided to protect her safety, the foremost consideration. But she also had her teammates in mind when she made the call. She looked after herself and she looked after others, a classic Biles move, if not one that is featured under her name in the Code of Points

Biles had to make these calculations quickly, in a matter of minutes, and the decision was hers alone to make. No coach would’ve had the audacity to pull Simone freaking Biles from the Olympic team final. Back in 2013, Aimee Boorman, her former coach, scratched her from the final event of the U.S. Classic after Biles botched her previous events and dangerously bombed her vault warm-up. But that was before she was the GOAT, before she had even won her first national title. In 2021, after years of domination, no one—not her teammates, not her coaches, not the media—could ever see Biles as anything but an enormous scoring boon for any team lucky enough to have her. Only Biles could make the clear-headed judgment that on that day in Tokyo, she might actually be a liability to her team and an injury risk to herself. 

After Tokyo, Biles took a break from competitive gymnastics, though she didn’t disappear from public view. She headlined her own multicity tour featuring several other notable gymnastics champions. She tearfully testified in front of the Senate about the FBI’s myriad failures in the Nassar investigation. And she got married to NFL player Jonathan Owens in a destination wedding that dominated a cycle of celebrity media coverage.

Looming over all of her activities of the past couple of years was whether or not she’d return to competitive gymnastics. Before the postponement, Biles had been emphatic that 2020 would be her last hurrah, but she softened her stance as the Tokyo Games approached, suggesting that she’d stay open to competing through the 2024 Olympics. But then came her stunning decision to withdraw. It was unclear what that experience meant for her return to competition. Would what happened in Tokyo make her less likely to put on her grips again? 

Gymnastics fans speculated online, reading digital tea leaves for clues. If Biles appeared in another gymnast’s training photo, fans would debate whether she was returning to competition or merely visiting World Champions Centre, the gym her family owns and operates in suburban Houston. Or perhaps she dropped in from time to time to stay in shape. 

Now that she’ll be participating in the U.S. Classic this weekend, we know that she probably has been preparing, in some shape or form, for the better part of the last twelve months. In all this time, her young teammates—and their parents—had refrained from posting images and videos of Biles working out on social media, a remarkable feat of discipline in the social media age. (It was an adult, unconnected to Biles’s gym, who first let the cat out of the bag. TV football analyst Brady Quinn, whose wife, 2008 Olympic silver medalist Alicia Sacramone, is the women’s program strategic lead for USA Gymnastics, let the news slip two months ago on a podcast, although Biles’s return remained unconfirmed until she appeared on the roster for the Classic.) 

So far, Biles hasn’t said much about what exactly is motivating this comeback—if that’s even the right word for it. She never formally retired after Tokyo, and she hasn’t explicitly committed to making a run for Paris 2024. But it is hard to believe that Biles would resume full-time training to only go for this year’s world championship team. Paris has to be the ultimate goal.

And we’ve also seen very little gymnastics from Biles since her return to competition was announced. Snippets of her in action have appeared in her TikToks and compilations from USA Gymnastics; so far, though, she has mostly just posted bloopers and funny moments in the gym with teammates. The scoresheet from the most recent national team training camp, however, was more revealing of Biles’s competitive goals. She showed routines on all four events, putting to rest the notion that she might only return in an apparatus specialist capacity. On vault, the scoresheet demonstrated, based on the 6.2 start value posted, that she’s planning to bring back the radical and risky Yurchenko double pike that she debuted in 2021 but never got named for her. (To get a skill named, a gymnast has to do it at a major world event such as the Olympics, world championships, or World Cup. Biles had only done the vault in domestic competition.) On three of the four events, she posted the highest difficulty scores of anyone in the world. Extrapolating from those numbers, it’s safe to assume that Biles is bringing back many of her most difficult and daring elements. (And the twisting elements are back, though in a recent “ask me anything” [AMA] on Instagram, she admitted that she was “petrified” by twisting when she first resumed training.)

This weekend will mark the start of the third phase of Biles’s already legendary career. The first was that of a young gymnast climbing the ranks. The second was of a woman pushing the technical boundaries of her sport while finding and using her voice to advocate for herself and others. And as for this new chapter? It’s hard to predict, simply because there is no mountain in the sport left for her to summit. Whatever comes next for Simone Biles will be unprecedented.