1 of 5 | Simone Biles is keeping her aspirations quiet ahead of the 2024 Summer Games in France. File Photo by Richard Ellis/UPI | License Photo
MIAMI, Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Many observers credit what happened to gymnast Simone Biles for helping to bolster mental health awareness in sports. Now, with a new outlook, she is trying to savor each moment as she competes again, hoping to reach the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
Biles, 26, is more than two years removed from her hiatus after the 2020 Summer Games, when she was unable to conquer what participants in the sport call the "twisties" and withdrew from several finals in Tokyo in 2021.
After helping her team qualify for the all-around competition, Biles had written on Instagram that she felt "the weight of the world" on her shoulders.
She did win a bronze medal in the balance beam event, seemingly able to put her body and mind in sync at least for that competition.
Fast-forward to this year. After focusing on her mental health, Biles made her competitive return in August, winning first place at the Core Hydration Classic in Hoffman Estates, Ill.
She told reporters she thought at first she was "going to throw up" from nervousness. But she regained her cool, and a lot of the past became ancient history.
"I really don't think it was set in stone how far I'd go this year," Biles said Wednesday on YouTube. She will compete for Team USA next month at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium.
"I never blatantly said I wanted to do classics, championships, trials and all that stuff. Every day just gets a little better," Biles said.
Biles won four gold medals in 2016, setting the record for the most ever won by an American gymnast in a single Summer Games. That success led to acclaim as the best gymnast in history -- and the now-well-documented pressure heading into 2020 Summer Games.
The tumultuous trip to Tokyo and a break from competition, paired with USA Gymnastics infrastructure changes, support from teammates and coaching from Cecile and Laurent Landi, gave Biles her fresh outlook.
"The national team is a little more lenient with all of the girls, coaches and everything," Biles said. "They take it one step at a time. I feel like it's a little less stressful, especially for the younger ones coming up. I've been in a lot of national team camps. I can see the difference."
Biles logged the highest score in the all-around selection event for the U.S world championships team Tuesday in Katy, Texas. Last month, she captured a record eighth all-around U.S. title.
Her process back to the sport included slightly less time on the mat and more focused practices. She prioritizes family time -- including with husband Jonathan Owens, a safety for the Green Bay Packers -- and devotes fewer hours to sponsorships.
Biles remains tight-lipped about her aspirations, but brilliantly bright white smile flashes are evidence of greater enjoyment and mindfulness amid her path to Paris.
"I think with personal goals, sometimes it's OK to keep them to ourselves, just so nobody can throw it in our face," Biles said at the U.S. championships.
"I'm at the age where it's like, let me be at peace. One thing at a time."
Biles looks in the mirror each day, glancing at a "And Still I Rise" tattoo on her collarbone. She said it reminds her of the adversity she overcame and why she still competes.
She said she can't remember many of her previous titles because of pressure and focus on the next goal.
"Sometimes, you black out whenever all those things happen," Biles said. "Whenever I won those titles back in the day, we were focusing on the next thing. What's next?
"We never really got to settle in and celebrate that. I think now we really try to celebrate our success individually and as a team."
Biles' renewed spirit and drive could stem in part from USA Gymnastics completing a staff overhaul of nearly 70% since 2018. In the last three years, USA Gymnastics also implemented mental health emergency action plans, onsite mental health providers and more resources, including therapy dogs, at team camps and competitions.
In October, USA Gymnastics announced it will cover costs for regular visits to mental health providers for national team athletes and coaches, as part of a new health and wellness program. The athletes can be reimbursed for up to eight annual visits.
A need for more mental health support and decades of unchecked abuse, including the acts committed by convicted sexual predator Larry Nassar, prompted the widespread changes in USA Gymnastics. Those issues were mostly brought to light by female gymnasts, including Biles and Laurie Hernandez.
Hernandez, 23, said her relationship with gymnastics today is much better than a few years ago. The New Jersey native is one of many gymnasts to detail emotional abuse inflicted by coaches, which she said led to depression.
Now a New York University student, Hernandez said much "needed space and time" away from the sport changed her perspective and support from older athletes provided encouragement to speak out.
"The previous environment was so stuck in its errored ways that the best way to make things better was to replace what was broken, not try to keep it and fix it," Hernandez, a two-time Olympic medalist, told UPI.
"It's also important not just for a new generation of athletes to see new representation, but for veterans coming back into the sport to see those new faces along with new change. It tells us that things won't stay how they were."
Hernandez joined Biles, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman to form the "Final Five," who won gold in the women's artistic team all-around event at the 2016 Summer Games.
"I hope that some of the athletes just feel more comfortable speaking up or knowing that it's OK to need any kind of outside help and that we are here to support them in whatever they need," said 2008 Olympic silver medalist Chellsie Memmel, who was named technical lead of the U.S. women's national team in 2022.
"I've seen a shift with that. I hope it continues to move forward," Memmel told UPI.
Memmel, fellow 2008 silver medalist Alicia Sacramone Quinn and Dan Baker are the faces of the women's program's three-person performance leadership structure, announced in 2022. She says athletes voices are "more heard" under the new leadership.
Coaches meet individually with the gymnasts to hear what their goals are and to receive feedback about their experiences. USA Gymnastics also continues to survey its members, citing a 600% increase in response rate between those it sent out in 2021 and 2022.
"Having it be a little bit more athlete-centric and allowing the athletes' voices to be more heard than I think they've been in the past was definitely a big part of me taking this position," said Memmel, a Hall of Fame gymnast.
"Honestly the biggest thing for us has been trying to get to know the athletes as people and not just treating them as as only gymnasts trying to make this team or that team," Memmel said. "I think that is definitely a shift."
Memmel said Biles' decision to prioritize her wellness played a vital role in increasing mental health resources within gymnastics and giving athletes a voice.
"She shined a light on it to show people the human side of it," Memmel said. "We aren't all perfect. All of us need help or go through difficult things, even on the biggest stage in your career. She decided to do what was best for her health and her safety.
"I respect her for that and I think a lot of people do."
Results from 178 national team athletes surveyed by USA Gymnastics after Biles' competition hiatus after Tokyo showed an 11% increase for those who agreed with the idea that there was an "avenue from them to freely express" ideas for change within the new infrastructure.
Biles will be the first American woman in history to compete in six world artistic gymnastics championships. Shilese Jones, Leanne Wong, Skye Blakely and Joscelyn Roberson also will compete in worlds, which start Sept. 30. Kayla DiCello is an alternate.
Asher Hong, Paul Juda, Yul Moldauer, Fred Richard, Khoi Young and Colt Walker (alternate) were named to the U.S. men's team.
USA Gymnastics is expected to announce the men's and women's Olympic rosters for Team USA in June. Selections for the world championship teams will not impact who will be selected.
Gabby Douglas and Suni Lee, who did not compete in the U.S. championships or world championships selection event, remain eligible to be chosen for Team USA and compete in the French Olympics.