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Gymnastics star Simone Biles named AP Female Athlete of Year a third time after dazzling return

Olympian is sixth woman to claim AP honor for third time

By WILL GRAVES, AP National Writer
Published: December 22, 2023, 10:58am

There were jitters, of course. Considering all that happened, how could there not be?

When Simone Biles walked onto the floor at a suburban Chicago arena in late July for her first gymnastics competition in two years, she knew plenty of people were wondering how it was going to go.

“I thought that too, don’t worry,” Biles said with a laugh.

By the end of one rotation, the most decorated gymnast of all time realized she was back in her safe space. By the end of August, she was a national champion. Again. By October, she was a world champion. Again.

And by December, she was The Associated Press’ Female Athlete of the Year.

Yes, again.

Her triumphant return that included her record eighth U.S. national championship and a sixth world all-around gold made Biles the sixth woman to claim the AP honor for a third time. The 26-year-old seven-time Olympic medalist was followed by Iowa basketball star Caitlin Clark and Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmati of the World Cup champion Spanish soccer team in voting by a panel of sports media professionals.

And to think, she wasn’t really sure what awaited her on that summer night in front of a packed arena that supported her at every turn, a response she says she didn’t anticipate.

Hard to blame her.

The last time Biles had saluted the judges, she was earning a bronze medal on the balance beam at the end of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the end of a tumultuous two weeks where her decision to pull out of multiple finals due to “ the twisties ” (think mid-air vertigo) dragged the sometimes uncomfortable conversation about athletes and their mental health into the white-hot spotlight only the Games provide.

Though she drew near-universal acclaim for her courage to put her safety first, a quick check of her mentions on social media showed not everyone agreed.

She took a two-year hiatus in the aftermath, going into what she called a “protective shell.” She dove deeper into therapy while eyeing a return on her terms.

Still, that didn’t stop self-doubt from creeping in. Only this time, instead of letting the anxiety gnaw at her confidence, she accepted its presence, took a deep breath, and put on the kind of show that is hers and hers alone.

“I did a lot better than I thought I would do,” Biles said.

Same as it ever was.

Biles previously won the AP honor in 2016 and 2019, times in her life she now barely recognizes.

She was still a teenager following her star-making performance at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Still living at home with her parents. Her world still revolved around the spaceship of a gym her family built in the Houston suburbs.

Thinking about it, she can’t help but shake her head a little bit. Biles remembers thinking she only had time to practice and — if she was lucky — get her nails done.

It’s not that way anymore. She’s made it a point to make sure that the sport she’s redefined no longer defines her.

Biles married Green Bay Packers safety Jonathan Owens in the spring. Her time is split between getting to Packers games when her schedule allows, working with her corporate partners and poring over the details of the house she and her husband are building.

Part of her evolution is organic. Part of it is intentional. For too long, she let herself get too caught up in the outcome of every turn, every flip, every twist, every practice in a discipline where perfection is literally unattainable.

“Whenever I was 19, it was the end of the world if I had bad days,” she said. “Now I’m like, ’It’s OK, it’s just gymnastics and I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll get it started again.’”

Biles isn’t kidding when says she’s trying to take more of a “one day at a time” approach, not easy for someone who admits she has a habit of “best case/worst case-ing” every little thing. She didn’t really get serious about returning until late spring when coach Cecile Landi suggested over margaritas that maybe it was time to give the world a peek at what Biles had been working on.

Her response was somewhere along the lines of “sure, OK” even though there was a part of her that felt she might not ever be ready.

“I didn’t know what I was expecting,” said Biles, who credited the people she has surrounded herself with for believing in her when she was still grappling with her belief in herself. “People were like, ‘No, we’ve seen you in training, this is what was supposed to happen.’”

And what was supposed to happen quickly became what has almost always happened since Biles began taking the norms of her sport and bending them to her will.

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It wasn’t just that she won but how she did it. Her intricate and gravity-defying tumbling has become more precise. A full decade into her elite career, her routines for all four events are still packed with remarkable difficulty.

Nowhere is that difficulty more apparent than on vault, where she became the first woman to perform a Yurchenko double-pike in international competition. The move — a breathtaking combination of power and more than a little guts — is now the fifth element to carry her name in the sport’s code of points.

She doesn’t have to do it to win. She does it anyway, because, as she put it a few years ago, she can.

Barring injury or the unforeseen, a third trip to the Olympics awaits next summer. She knows this. She’d just prefer not to talk about it. She only begrudgingly uses the words “Paris” or “Olympics” in interviews, a very conscious choice.

It’s telling of where Biles is in her life that she recently shared an Instagram story in which followers were asked to post their best moment of 2023. The picture she chose wasn’t taken from a routine or a medal podium but she and Owens dancing at their wedding reception, the picture of a life finding its balance.

“At the end of the day I did worlds and all that stuff, but I did get married, I got to support him,” she said. “It’s just like, it’s kind of nice that gymnastics isn’t the main revolving piece.”

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