‘Like a Taylor Swift concert’: Simone Biles enthralls fans on comeback trail

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The seven-time Olympic medalist hailed as the greatest gymnast ever inspires a popstar-like devotion from her fans, who packed a hockey arena over the weekend for US nationals

Simone Biles continued her triumphant return to competition over the weekend, taking all-around gold at the US gymnastics championships on Sunday to become the first man or woman to win eight national titles.

The event marked the second meet for the seven-time Olympic medalist since she stunned the world by withdrawing from a majority of her events at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics in August 2021, citing her mental and physical health. But if there were concerns that a break of more than two years would set Biles back, her performance over the weekend all but annihilated them.

“Simone is more fit right now than she’s ever been,” her coach Laurent Landi told journalists after Sunday’s medal ceremony, saying that Biles’ floor exercise was the best of her career.

If the 2016 Olympic all-around champion is back and better than ever, so too are her fans – who for two years patiently awaited a return that was never guaranteed. As Biles completed her final performance on Sunday evening – the stunning floor routine for which she earned an impressive score of 15.400 – the sold-out crowd that filled the 17,562-seat arena rose in a standing ovation, their cheers growing into a building-shaking roar.

While many sports have their Michael Jordans, gymnastics tends to bring less consistent star power, with interest peaking around the Olympics. But from the entrance of SAP Center – where spectators were provided poster boards and markers to make signs for the event – it was clear the Biles Effect is back in full force. Fans, a majority of them young girls, scribbled variations of “Go Simone”, “Simone the GOAT!” and, simply, “Girl power!” onto their signs.

“This is like a Taylor Swift concert but for Simone,” said Samantha Brady, 10, whose father had driven her four hours from their home in Chico, California, to see Biles compete. “She’s literally my idol.”

While Biles has attracted a popstar-like following from young fans – many of whom were born after she began her senior career in 2013 – longtime followers of the sport have a special appreciation for the gymnast’s trajectory. The 26-year-old from suburban Houston surpassed Linda Metheny Mulvihill as the oldest woman ever to win the national all-around title on Sunday, a full 10 years after she won it for the first time as a teenage prodigy. Landi, her coach, said that Biles’ age is an asset in the sport.

“She knows what she can and cannot do outside of the gym to stay fit – it’s about maturity,” he said. “When you know yourself and you know your body, you can keep going for as long as you think you can.”

After Biles withdrew from the Olympics, a handful of critics – from Twitter trolls to Fox News hosts – branded her as a “quitter” who had selfishly let her team down. But for many who came to see her compete on Friday and Sunday, her decision in Tokyo only strengthened their admiration.

Tanner Scott, 27, who stood in the stands holding a sign that read, “We traveled 1,685 miles for Biles,” said he drove to California from Colorado to attend the event with his father, Tracy, who traveled from Illinois.

“I love the message she gave the world, that it is OK to take a break and do what’s best for her,” Tracy said. “I was already inspired by her as a gymnast. Now I’m more inspired by her as a person.”

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