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Simone Biles recalls days as ‘a nobody’ as U.S. gymnastics team eyes historic world champs

Simone Biles Gymnastics World Championships

ANTWERP, BELGIUM - September 28: Joscelyn Roberson and Simone Biles of the United States during the team’s podium training at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships-Antwerp 2023 at the Antwerp Sportpaleis on September 28th, 2023 in Antwerp, Belgium. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Corbis via Getty Images

ANTWERP, Belgium — A decade ago, Simone Biles made her world championships debut here with braces, a promise that she could pierce her belly button if she won and a name that was not yet known throughout the arena.

“I can’t help but notice that the announcer pronounces your name like sea-money,” another gymnast tweeted to her at the meet.

“Yeah the team calls me that now,” Biles, then with 7,000 Twitter followers, replied. “Its my new nickname!”

Biles, then a 16-year-old with a lucky turtle figurine, won the all-around and four total individual medals at the 2013 Worlds in her international breakout.

She returned this week to Belgium’s most populous city for her American record sixth world championships.

“Antwerp gave me all the confidence I needed going forward. When I came into 2013, I was literally a nobody,” she told meet organizers.

She opens her first international meet since the Tokyo Olympics with qualifying on Sunday, followed by finals Wednesday (team), next Friday (all-around) and Saturday and Sunday (individual apparatuses).

“I think it’s full circle,” Biles said last week, after becoming the oldest U.S. female gymnast to make a world team in more than 50 years. “So now to go [back to Antwerp] in 2023 is pretty crazy.”

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She also took two years off after her first Games in 2016, but she was always expected to return that time. In this go-around, she went into the break not knowing if it would be a finite one.

She returned to training in the gym for fitness reasons in September 2022. It wasn’t until March that she confided serious comeback plans to coach Cecile Landi over margaritas.

Then in August, she did three days of all-around competition between two meets and posted the world’s three best scores in this Olympic cycle, according to the Gymternet.

Biles headlines a U.S. women’s quintet seeking a record-breaking seventh consecutive world team title (on the exact 10th anniversary date of Biles’ first world gold). They are heavily favored, just like the stacked teams of Biles’ past. The Americans even won last year’s event by 3.201 points (a fall in a routine costs one point), and that was without the Texan.

Excluding Russia, the U.S. has four of the top seven all-arounders in the world this year by best scores -- Biles, Shilese Jones, Leanne Wong and Skye Blakely. Joscelyn Roberson, the lone worlds rookie on the team, is seeded second on vault and third on beam in the worlds field by best scores this year.

Russian gymnasts, who won the Tokyo team title after Biles withdrew with the twisties, have been banned since shortly after the invasion of Ukraine and will not be able to qualify a team for the Paris Olympics unless rules are changed.

Individually, Biles is undefeated in major championship all-arounds at the senior level — eight national titles, five world titles and an Olympic gold. (In Antwerp in 2013, she trailed countrywoman Kyla Ross by 16 thousandths of a point going into her last routine, floor exercise, and then won comfortably by .884.)

Come Friday, she is expected to tie retired Japanese men’s legend Kohei Uchimura’s record with a sixth world all-around title.

However, some doubt was cast at last week’s world championship selection camp. Biles fell twice. Jones, last year’s world all-around silver medalist, would have beaten her if Jones repeated her uneven bars scores from August’s nationals. But, inexplicably, Jones’ feet brushed the floor mat after a transition to the low bar, costing her more than a point and the victory.

If Jones is not Biles’ closest challenger, it will likely be Brazilian Rebeca Andrade, who won last year’s world title in Biles’ absence. Andrade has not competed on floor exercise all year, which makes worlds her 2023 all-around debut.

Biles has an edge of 35 hundredths of a point over Andrade when totaling their best scores on balance beam, bars and vault this year, according to the Gymternet. That advantage balloons to 1.55 points if adding Biles’ world-leading floor score and Andrade’s best floor score from 2022 Worlds. Scores vary from meet to meet (and are traditionally higher domestically), but they’re the best gauge of prospects going into qualifying.

Biles could add three more medals in next weekend’s apparatus finals, which would bring her career total to an even 30 in what may be her last worlds.

Landi said Biles was a little bit nervous when she entered the arena for training on Thursday. Biles then awed a small audience during a 90-minute session, joked in between routines and called it a day.

Biles, as she rewatched video of her clutch floor routine to win the 2013 Worlds, said not much has changed with her gymnastics in the last 10 years. But the braces are gone, now millions of people know her name and her expectations may be a bit different.

“I remember being like absolutely petrified,” at the 2013 Worlds, she said. “I wish I could remember more, but I feel like it’s a blur. … I didn’t think I was going to even end up in top six.”