US gymnastics great Biles aims to lock up Paris berth at US Olympic trials

Simone Biles trains on the uneven bars ahead of the US Olympic gymnastics trials (Kerem YUCEL)
Simone Biles trains on the uneven bars ahead of the US Olympic gymnastics trials (Kerem YUCEL)

Simone Biles looks all but unstoppable as she vies to punch her ticket to Paris at the US Olympic gymnastics trials this week, where competition to fill out the five-woman roster promises to be fierce.

Biles captured her ninth US all-around title earlier this month, winning on all four apparatus at the US championships in Fort Worth, Texas.

Coach Cecile Landi said Biles's success in managing her mental health combined with sheer talent and a formidable work ethic mean the 27-year-old could be better than ever as a third trip to the Olympics beckons.

"I think we always knew she could be better," Landi said Wednesday as women began training at the Target Center in Minneapolis, where the trials start on Thursday with men's competition.

"She's the most talented athlete I've ever worked with and so we just knew if she could get her mental game as well as her physical game, then she would be close to unstoppable."

Biles dazzled in winning four gold medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but her expected star turn at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games was cut short when she withdrew with the "twisties" -- a temporary mental block whereby gymnasts lose their sense of where they are in the air.

Since returning to competition in August she has gone from strength to strength, piling up more medals including all-around gold at the world championships last year.

Landi said a better work-life balance had only helped Biles in the gym.

"All the work she's been doing outside the gym and just being 27, married, she has other stuff going on and I think it helps her keep a good balance," Landi said. "It's not only about gymnastics and I think that keeps her sane."

Nevertheless, the Olympic trials are a nerve-wracking affair: two days of competition each for women and men with the athletes emerging as the all-around winners securing their Olympic berths.

A selection committee will then choose the remaining team members, taking into account performances at trials and other competitions including the national championships, as well as what combination of athletes might give the United States their best Olympic scoring chances.

The 16 women in the field include Suni Lee, who won all-around gold and uneven bars bronze in Tokyo, who is in her best form since battling career-threatening kidney disease.

In her first elite all-around competition since Tokyo Lee finished fourth at the US championships, shaking off a vault error to win the balance beam, where her difficulty score was the highest of any competitor in the event.

Defending Olympic floor champion Jade Carey, a seven-time world medallist, seeks another trip to the Games, as does Jordan Chiles, who helped the US to team silver in Tokyo.

- Trials 'hardest thing' -

A lot is riding on the trials for 21-year old Shilese Jones, who won all-around bronze at the 2023 worlds but missed the US championships when an old shoulder injury flared up.

Jones had to petition for an invitation to trials, coach Sarah Korngold saying Wednesday she had arrived in Minneapolis pain free and ready to challenge for a first Olympic berth.

Skye Blakely, a two-time world team gold medallist expected to contend to make a first Olympic team, was injured in training on Wednesday and her status for the competition unclear.

Kayla DiCello, an alternate in Tokyo, won the Winter Cup in February and took all-around bronze at the US championships.

"Olympic trials for any sport is the hardest thing that you'll ever do in life because the finishing product is obviously the Olympics," Chiles said. "This is where we're making an Olympic team."

Women will begin competition on Friday and conclude on Sunday, when the team for Paris will be named.

Twenty men launch competition for five Olympic berths on Thursday, with Brody Malone seeking to continue his comeback from career-threatening knee injuries sustained when he came off the horizontal bar at a meeting in germany in 2023.

Out for more than a year, Malone won his third US all-around title this month.

His competition here includes 2020 Olympian Yul Moldauer, who helped the United States to team bronze at the world championships last year, the men's first world medal since 2014.

The young stars of that team, Paul Juda, Fred Richardson, Asher Hong and Khoi Young, are hoping for a chance to build on that success in Paris.