Simone Biles fell short of further burnishing her status as the greatest gymnast of all time last night, coming fifth in the uneven bars finals at the World Gymnastics Championships.
The result was immaterial to most fans, following as it did her all-around gold win on Friday which capped an astonishing comeback after a two-year career hiatus to protect her mental health. Her total haul of 34 world and Olympic medals eclipses any other gymnast, male or female, making her the most decorated in history.
Bars is considered Biles’ weaker event with experts agreeing it was impressive that she even reached the final in Belgium yesterday.
The scenes were a far cry from those witnessed during the Tokyo Olympics two years ago when she stunned the world by withdrawing from four of five finals, including the team and all-around events. Biles blamed it on “the twisties,” the sudden onset of a mental block that in gymnastics can cause a person to lose their sense of where they are in the air.
After her withdrawal from the Olympics, a handful of critics ranging from Fox News presenters to online trolls derided Biles as a “quitter” who had let her team down for selfish reasons. Weeks later, her challenges appeared compounded when Biles broke down in tears when, appearing before a senate judiciary committee in Washington, she shared her story of being sexually abused by disgraced US gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
“I don’t want another young gymnast, or Olympic athlete, or any individual to experience the horror that I and hundreds of others have endured before, during and continuing to this day in the wake of the Larry Nassar abuse,” said Biles, her voice choking as she articulated how those responsible for protecting young gymnasts had profoundly failed.
Biles competes at the 2023 Artistic Gymnastics World Championships. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images
For some observers, the experiences seemed too much even for a competitor used to battling. Biles has recounted eating cereal with water because her family couldn’t afford milk and being taken into foster care in Columbus, Ohio, as her mother fought addiction. She was later adopted by her maternal grandparents in Texas.
After helping the US to a record seventh consecutive team title at the world championships in Antwerp earlier last week, Biles secured her second gold medal on Friday – a decade after she won her first all-around world title as a 16-year-old in the same city.
On the podium the gymnast was visibly emotional. “I was emotional because 10 years (ago) I won my first worlds, now we’re back here.
“It means everything to me, the fight, everything that I’ve put in to get back to this place to feel comfortable and confident enough to compete.”
Jaw-dropping sport moments of 2021: Simone Biles at the Tokyo OlympicsRead more
Having regained her place at the highest level, the Texan is already understood to be preparing for the Paris Olympics, which are fewer than 10 months away. Officially, however, the gymnast has repeatedly stressed that she is taking things one competition at a time.
Lauded not only for her comeback ability, Biles is also admired for her outspokenness and willingness to speak out against injustices: telling people to vote, arguing that electricity and clean water should be more accessible and calling out violence against Asian Americans.
During the protests that followed George Floyd’s killing in 2021, Biles stood up for Black Lives Matter, further bolstering her appeal to her legions of fans, many of whom were born after she began her senior career in 2013.
Earlier this year, Biles married NFL star Jonathan Owens in Texas, a year after getting engaged on Valentine’s Day.
Biles’s competition continues today with the balance beam and floor exercise finals.