Simone Biles, looking perhaps better than ever, surges to early lead at US Championships

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — It's not the skills, otherworldly though they may be, that Simone Biles has displayed so regularly for so long that stand out so much anymore, at least not to the ones who know her best.

The question with the gymnastics superstar — the only question really with a third trip to the Olympics in the offing — isn't about talent or ability but desire.

She answered that one as best she could over four peerless routines at the U.S. Championships on Friday night, combining staggering difficulty with breathtaking execution to open up a massive lead and put herself on the cusp of a ninth national title.

Biles posted an all-around total 60.450 — the highest in the world during the current Olympic quad — and in some ways looked as good as ever during a reign atop the sport that's essentially at 11 years and counting.

Yet just as important as what Biles is doing is the way she is doing it. There is a sort of professional lightness to her at the moment, and that has put those around her at ease in a way that was hard to find ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I really feel like she is happy to be here,” said Biles' longtime coach, Cecile Landi. “I know she is ready to be done but I think she’s really enjoying it and appreciating every meet she gets to do.”

It certainly looks like it.

At 27, married, with a seemingly bottomless supply of medals stashed somewhere in her Houston-area home, Biles could have chosen to get on with the rest of her life.

Instead, she thrusted herself into the sometimes unyielding crucible that being in the Olympic spotlight provides. She seems ready for what lies ahead after registering the top score in every event, even on the uneven bars, long her least favorite.

“She needs to feel confident and this time she feels confident," Landi said. “Competing well, it builds (the confidence) up for her.”

The seven-time Olympic medalist and six-time world champion began her night with her Yurchenko Double Pike vault, clasping her hands to her knees as somersaulted backward — twice — before landing with so much force her momentum carried her back a step.

No matter, her score of 15.8 included a 9.4 for execution, a massive number for a vault so difficult no woman other than Biles has ever attempted in a major competition and only a select number of men have even tried it.

Yet Biles has mastered it to the point that it's become just part of the show, a show that remains — when she is at her best — unparalleled in the sport, and arguably the Olympic movement.

Barring injury, she's all but assured of a room in the Olympic Village in late July. The question of which other four women will join her, however, likely won't be sorted out until the waning moments of the Olympic Trials in Minneapolis at the end of June.

Shilese Jones, the second-best all-around gymnast in the U.S. behind Biles, pulled out of the championships Friday afternoon, citing a shoulder injury. Jones plans to petition into Olympic Trials, a petition that will almost certainly be granted.

If healthy, Jones is as close to a lock as there is. After her, however, plenty of intrigue abounds in arguably the deepest field in at least a generation.

Blakely was just 16 when she unexpectedly became eligible for the pandemic-delayed 2020 Olympics. That run ended with a ruptured elbow at the Olympic Trials. The 19-year-old believes she's in a better place now and it showed. She capped her night with a 15.000 on vault, a score that left her “shocked and excited.”

It also boosted Blakely's total to 57.050, well above the goal of 56 that she typed into the notes section of her phone beforehand.

Kayla DiCello, who left the University of Florida to return to Maryland and convinced elite coach Kelli Hill to come out of retirement in the process in pursuit of the Olympics, rebounded from a shaky performance at the U.S. Classic two weeks ago is at 56.850 to put herself in position to reach the podium at the end of Sunday's finals.

Sunisa Lee, the 2020 Olympic champion, took another step forward while trying to navigate a pair of kidney-related issues that complicated her training (and in some ways her life). Lee competed in all four events for the first time this season, capping her performance with a 14.300 on bars — her best event — despite intentionally watering her routine down a bit to ensure she would hit it.

Jordan Chiles, a 2020 Olympian and a three-time world championship medalist, continued her resurgence. Rocking a multi-colored leotard that's a nod to pop superstar Beyonce, Chiles' night included a rock-solid 14.5 on uneven bars. The only real hiccup came at the end of her floor routine when she shorted her final tumbling pass and lurched forward.

There is plenty left to decide over the next month. Except when it comes to Biles who is still, a decade-plus into her elite career, in a class by herself.

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