Gymnastics-All eyes on Biles at worlds as American returns after two-year hiatus
The World Artistic Gymnastics Championships return to Antwerp, the city that hosted the first edition 120 years ago, and it is a familiar hunting ground for Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in the competition's history.
The American won the first of her five world all-around titles in 2013 at the age of 16 in Antwerp and has since become a household name after winning a record 25 worlds medals -- which includes a jaw-dropping 19 golds.
At 26, she will become not only the oldest American woman to compete at the worlds in over half a century but also the first woman to represent the U.S. at six artistic world championships when it kicks off on Saturday.
The Americans are seeking a seventh straight team title but all eyes will be on Biles to see if she can hit the same lofty heights as she returns to international competition following a two-year break from the sport to protect her mental health.
Biles made headlines at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 when she withdrew from multiple events due to the 'twisties', a loss of spatial awareness in mid-air, an experience that can be terrifying for even the most experienced gymnasts.
But when she returned for the U.S. Gymnastics Championships last month, it was like she had never left as she warmed up for the worlds with a record eighth all-around national title to earn a standing ovation from the San Jose crowd.
However, Biles has not competed at the worlds since the 2019 championships in Stuttgart, where she earned five golds and had new skills named after her when she successfully landed her signature moves.
The Paris Games next year are her ultimate target but the four-times Olympic champion said she will approach her third Games a bit differently, focusing on being fully fit both physically and mentally.
The top nine teams in Antwerp are set to receive five quota places each at the Paris Olympics. The U.S., Britain and Canada's women secured team quota spots last year while China, Japan and Britain secured men's quotas.
While the U.S. men are yet to secure qualification, the women are overwhelming favourites for top spot but Biles will have competition for the individual all-round gold.
The 2022 all-around champion Rebeca Andrade of Brazil, Olympic silver medallist in Tokyo, is a serious contender as is Biles's 21-year-old compatriot Shilese Jones, who took the silver at the worlds last year.
Jones returned from a 10-month layoff due to shoulder and ankle injuries to compete at the national championships and she sent out an ominous warning when she finished second behind Biles.
In the men's competition, China and Japan took gold and silver last year and the two teams are expected to battle for top spot yet again, with Japan's Olympic champion Daiki Hashimoto defending his worlds crown.
However, there will be no duel with China's 2021 world champion Zhang Boheng, who opted to skip the worlds to compete at the ongoing Asian Games where he has already picked up the all-around individual gold. REUTERS……
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