Three the hard way: Biles, Douglas and Lee headline historic US Classic

TThere was once a time, not so long ago, when the Olympic women’s all-around champion’s week of triumph would also likely be the last time they ever took part in an international competition. If their tireless journey to the top of their sport had not left deep physical or mental scars, the perception of women’s gymnastics as a sport for teenagers would deter them from investing their time in a new run. Between 1980 and 2016, no Olympic all-around champion gymnast returned to compete in another Olympic Games.

However, this is a time of change in women’s artistic gymnastics, and the US Classic in Hartford, Connecticut this weekend is a testament to how many more gymnasts are having longer, fuller careers. For the first time in history, three Olympic women’s all-around champions, Gabby Douglas, Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee, will compete in the same event as they compete to return to another Olympic Games.

“I love this generation,” Douglas said Friday. “We’re pushing the boundaries and saying, ‘Hey, you don’t have to be 16 and dominate. You can be in your twenties and still eat. ”

Of the three comebacks, Douglas’ presence in Hartford is the most fascinating. The 28-year-old is already a pioneer in many ways; after becoming the first black gymnast to win Olympic all-around gold at the 2012 London Olympics, in 2016 she became the first all-around champion since Nadia Comaneci in 1980 to return to another Olympics, where she earned a gold medal with the American team. Despite her success, Douglas’ second Olympic Games was a traumatic experience that drove her decision to return to competition.

Simone Biles performs on Friday during the podium training prior to the US Classic in Hartford. Photo: Charly Tribelleau/AFP/Getty Images

“I missed gymnastics,” Douglas said. “I loved it and it ended tough for me in 2016, so I didn’t want to end on that note. Regardless of the outcome, I want to end up with love and joy instead of hating something I love.”

Her journey since announcing her return last summer has been turbulent, to say the least. Douglas withdrew on the eve of February’s planned comeback event, the Winter Cup, citing Covid. Due to her absence, she was not eligible for one of the many international competitions this spring as she had hoped. Instead, she returned in subdued surroundings to the American Classic, a small competition held April 27 at a modest gym in Katy, Texas. It was a difficult day. Although Douglas had an excellent jump and showed some potential, she fell twice on the uneven bars and once on the floor.

While Douglas’ American Classic show was shaky, her performance during Friday’s podium practice, where gymnasts go through their routines on the competition floor, was much more encouraging. Douglas nearly missed stage practice after her commercial flight was canceled Thursday night, eventually arriving there at the last minute on two hours of sleep on a private jet belonging to her agent friend. Once there, Douglas navigated a world-class uneven traverse with some help from her coach and showed improved skills on the balance beam and floor.

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“I’m not going to put a lot of pressure on myself,” Douglas said. “I’m just going to take it step by step. And we’ll go from there.”

As Douglas completes preparations for her first major event in eight years, this weekend marks Biles’ return to competition since her incredible comeback at last year’s world championships, where she won four gold medals and a silver in her first major competition since a mental block forced her to withdraw from most of her events at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

Despite her dominance last year, Biles had actually been cautious with her skill selection in Antwerp, opting not to perform her more extensive spinning skills as she worked her way back into the competition. The confidence the 27-year-old has gained from the world championships and many more months of training appears to have been extremely helpful. She returned to competition on Friday with her eponymous triple-twisting double back on the floor routine, another of the most difficult skills Biles has developed in the history of women’s gymnastics.

Suni Lee is back in the Olympic mix after being diagnosed with a kidney condition in early 2023. Photo: Charly Tribelleau/AFP/Getty Images

Since becoming the fourth consecutive U.S. Olympic all-around champion in 2021, Lee has had her own challenges to overcome. After performing for Auburn University for a while in college, she was diagnosed with kidney disease in early 2023. The 21-year-old has not competed internationally since her Olympic triumph.

After her difficulties last year, Lee has slowly ramped up her all-round program in recent weeks. Like Douglas, her key to competing for a spot on the team is her huge uneven bars potential and the solidity she presented at her best in all other events, but both gymnasts are seriously up against the clock. As has been the case for the past dozen years since Douglas led her team to the 2012 Olympic gold medal that began this period of American dominance, the field is incredibly tough and making the U.S. Olympic team is likely even more challenging than it was before Olympic gold to go. once there.

Hartford is just the beginning of a grueling six-week process to determine the five-person Olympic teams. The gymnasts will then head to the two-day US Gymnastics Championships from May 30, before the leading contenders are invited to the final event of the run, the Olympic Trials, which begin on June 27.