Simone Biles will tell us she missed it more than she could have imagined. That she craves the challenge of pushing her body and mind to places the rest of us can’t comprehend. That she’ll embrace the five o’clock wake-up calls, the practice grind, the bruises, the ice packs, all of it, in ways she never did before. That she will see the camaraderie with coaches and competitors, even the planes and hotels and a life devoted to one solitary goal, in ways she never did before.
That’s the near-certain bottom line in the announcement Wednesday that she will return to competitive gymnastics after two years away. She’ll have perspective she never had before, having spent much of her life with a single-minded focus she now understands may have been necessary but not healthy.
She is 26 years old and recently married former Houston Texans and current Green Bay Packers safety Jonathan Owens. She returns to a sport occasionally dominated by teenagers. Biles was 19 when she won the first of her seven Olympic medals, in 2016, and a mentally exhausted 24 when she pulled out of competition in the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
Those who will tell us she’s risking her legacy and that she has nothing else to prove are missing the larger point. She did not become one of the world’s great gymnasts simply because she was physically gifted. She climbed the highest mountain in her sport because she loved it and never stopped being challenged by it. Did she miss the roars of the crowd? Sure she did. But that’s too simple of an explanation for why she’s returning. She could spend the rest of her life simply being Simone Biles. Running clinics. Mentoring young gymnasts. Giving speeches. Hosting banquets. Delivering TED talks.
She’s four-foot-eight and owns every room she enters. I’ve watched her steal the scene at Minute Maid Park during Astros games and seen her work a crowd as fans spot that spectacular smile and tell her how much they admire her as an athlete and a person. She has always understood that her fame gave her a platform, and she has used that platform to advocate for kids in foster care, to raise money to help empower young girls, to stock the shelves of food banks. She was the most prominent gymnast to speak out about the sexual abuse she and others suffered from former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. “I think of it as an honor to speak for the less fortunate and for the voiceless,” she told Vogue in a July 2020 profile. “I also feel like it gives them power.” In the Houston area, which she calls home, she will always be seen as more than a great athlete.
Biles will return to competition in August, at the U.S. Classic outside Chicago. (It will be her first event since the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, were held in 2021.) That timetable means she has been back in training for months to prepare her mind and body for the challenges that await her. She last competed in the balance beam final in Tokyo and won a bronze medal, tying the all-time record for medals by a female gymnast. She never ruled out a return for the Paris 2024 Olympics, and Wednesday’s announcement by USA Gymnastics suggests that the most decorated gymnast of all time might make one last run at Olympic glory.
Biles arrived in Tokyo as the centerpiece of NBC’s Team USA coverage. She had been so dominant over the four previous years that she wasn’t expected just to win, but to dominate. Had she just done that, the world would have shrugged. Instead she faltered during her team routine, which caused the pressure to ratchet up on her. By the time she stepped away from several events, she’d reminded the world that even the greatest athletes are susceptible to stress.
She was dealing with “the twisties,” a term for when gymnasts lose control of their bodies while in the air. After withdrawing, she served as a cheerleader for her American teammates before returning to compete on the balance beam. “I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat and work on my mindfulness,” she said at the time.
Now that Biles has announced her return, it appears she has also joined the ranks of great athletes who’ve struggled with life away from competition. As Roger Clemens, who came back from several retirements during and after his Major League Baseball career, once told me: “The only thing I failed at was retirement.” Clemens understands the position Biles is in better than almost anyone, since he tried to retire so many times it became a running joke among baseball diehards. The Rocket finally threw his last major league pitch in 2007, when he was 45 years old, after spending 24 seasons in the big leagues.
Nolan Ryan has also been there. When his right elbow finally came undone near the end of his twenty-seventh season, in 1993, he was as prepared for retirement as any athlete could have been. His post-baseball plans were lined up—lots of ranching, plus banking and endorsement deals to preserve some income. He had offers to remain in the game as a coach or front-office executive, too. But for years Ryan felt something akin to depression, and he struggled to find his place in a new world. “You don’t do anything your entire adult life and not miss it,” he once told me. “I think the biggest thing is the competition, being a member of a team, the camaraderie with teammates. . . . It was about the hardest thing I ever tried to do.”
He returned to baseball as president of the Texas Rangers and led them to back-to-back American League pennants in 2010 and ’11 before retiring in 2013 and settling into a happy life as a grandfather, cattleman, and banker.
Rudy Tomjanovich had job offers, too, when the Houston Rockets informed him he would not be re-signed after his final season playing forward for the team, in 1981. He missed the competition so much that he approached his former team and got some scouting assignments. “I forced myself to go get on a plane, go to games, and write up reports,” he told me. “I’m not sure you ever stopped missing playing, but you gradually settle into a new life.”
Astros Hall of Famer Craig Biggio ended his twenty-season MLB career on September 30, 2007. The following morning, he rolled out of bed and headed for his new coaching gig at St. Thomas High School. That day he raked the field, trimmed some grass, and got things in order for when his players reported for practice. “I didn’t stop to think about the transition,” he told me. “I had this one job for twenty seasons, and then I had this other job. It wasn’t that complicated.”
When she returns, Simone Biles will have the advantage of having banked an enormous amount of goodwill. After watching her handle adversity in Tokyo and learning of her numerous acts of public service in Houston and beyond, more people will be rooting for her than she can imagine. She’s a role model in every way that phrase can be defined—and now she’ll put her stamp on the term “comeback.”