MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Simone Biles is heading back to the Olympics and the white-hot spotlight that comes with it.

The gymnastics superstar earned a third trip to her sport’s biggest stage by cruising to victory at the U.S. Olympic trials on Sunday night, posting a two-day all-around total of 117.225 to clinch the lone automatic spot on the five-woman team.

Three years removed from the Tokyo Olympics — where she pulled out of multiple finals to prioritize her safety and mental health — Biles heads back to the games looking perhaps as good as ever.

“Trusting the process and (my coaches), I knew I’d be back,” Biles said.

A trip to France has never really been in doubt since she returned from a two-year break last summer. All she’s done over the last 12 months is win a sixth world all-around title and her eighth and ninth national championship — both records — while further cementing her status as the best-ever in her sport.

She’ll head to Paris as a prohibitive favorite to bookend the Olympic gold she won in 2016, but with things to work on, too.

Biles backpedaled after landing her Yurchenko double pike vault, a testament to both the vault’s difficulty and the immense power she generates during a skill few male gymnasts try and even fewer land as cleanly.

She hopped off the beam after failing to land her side aerial, though she wasn’t quite as frustrated as she was during a sloppy performance on Friday that left her uttering an expletive for all the world to see.

Biles finished with a flourish on floor exercise, her signature event. Though there was a small step out of bounds, there was also the unmatched world-class tumbling that recently drew a shoutout from pop star Taylor Swift, whose song “Ready For It” opens Biles’ routine.

She stepped off the podium to a standing ovation, then sat down atop the steps to take in the moment in what could be her last competitive round on American soil for quite a while.

Next stop, Paris.

The Americans will likely be loaded with experience as they try to return to the top of the podium after finishing second to Russia in 2020.

Reigning Olympic champion Sunisa Lee, 2020 Olympic floor exercise champion Jade Carey and 2020 Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles all made compelling cases to join Biles by rounding out the top four.

Yet the Biles that will step onto the floor at Bercy Arena for Olympic qualifying in four weeks isn’t the same one that left Tokyo.

She’s taken intentional steps to make sure her life is no longer defined by her gymnastics. Biles married Chicago Bears safety Jonathan Owens in the spring of 2023 and the two are building a house in the northern Houston suburbs they hope to move into shortly after Biles returns from Paris.

Biles heads to France as perhaps the face of the U.S. Olympic movement, though she’s well aware that more than a few of the millions that will tune in to watch next month will be checking to see if the demons that derailed her in Tokyo resurface.

And while there are still moments of anxiety — including at last year’s world championships — she has put safeguards in place to protect herself. She meets with a therapist weekly, even during competition season, something she didn’t do in preparation for the 2020 games.

Biles and the other four women who join her in France will be considered heavy favorites, particularly with defending Olympic champion Russia unable to compete as part of the fallout from the war in Ukraine.

The Americans will take their oldest women’s team ever to the games, as Biles’ unrivaled longevity — she hasn’t lost a meet she’s started and finished since 2013 — and the easing of rules around name, image and likeness rules at the NCAA level allowed 2020 Olympic veterans Carey, Chiles and Lee to continue to compete while cashing in on their newfound fame at the same time.

They have relied on that experience to get back to this moment during a sometimes harrowing meet that saw leading contenders Shilese Jones, Skye Blakely and Kayla DiCello exit with leg injuries that took them out of the mix weeks before opening ceremonies.


AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games