SAN JOSE, Calif. — Laurent Landi stood on the mat, arms slightly outstretched. He took one small step to his right. Then another.
Above him, above everyone really, Simone Biles soared through the air. Her arms clasped behind her knees. Her legs at a perfect 90-degree angle from her body.
Landi's decision to stand there was one of his conditions if Biles wanted to attempt a Yurchenko Double Pike, a vault so daunting few men have attempted it and no woman has ever completed it in international competition.
On Friday night at the U.S. Championships, all it did was give Landi, Biles' longtime coach, a close-up view of an athlete that somehow at age 26 appears to be as good as ever. Maybe better.
Biles rotated perfectly and landed with a small hop. The arms Landi had extended just in case instead led a cheer that sent a jolt through the SAP Center.
Those two seconds of brilliance provided the signature moment during two hours that showcased that now, a full decade into her run atop her sport, there is Biles and then there is everyone else.
Her all-around total of 59.300 was well ahead of a brilliant Shilese Jones in second at 56.750 and put Biles in position to win a record eighth national championship on Sunday night. Biles' total included a 15.7 for her showstopping vault, a score that included a near-perfect 9.8 for execution and a half-point neutral deduction for having Landi nearby.
Landi has no plans to ditch his post, though he could only shake his head when asked if a Yurchenko double pike is supposed to look that easy.
"No, it's not normal," he said. "She's not normal."
No. She's not.
Wearing a bedazzled purple leotard and with her family in the stands rocking matching T-shirts that read "Still I Rise," Biles put the disappointment of the 2020 Olympics and her battles with the mental block known as " the twisties " further in her rearview mirror.
Three weeks after a dazzling comeback meet in Chicago, Biles looked just as crisp while chasing history. There were mistakes here and there. She wobbled while mounting the balance beam and moments later nearly came off while trying to complete a wolf turn. Her peerless floor routine included a deduction for stepping out of bounds.
Otherwise, it was hard to tell if it was 2023 or 2013, when she claimed her first national title. She was a 16-year-old prodigy then, still trying to harness her considerable talents.
Now she's a 20-something newlywed not yet ready to leave a sport she has redefined. The comeback she was sort of iffy on until late spring only seems to be picking up speed. While she's hardly getting ahead of herself — she made it a point not to say the words "Olympics" or "Paris" after her victory in the U.S. Classic — her performance is speaking louder than any sequined-GOAT leotard ever could.
The YDP offered proof. She toyed with it in 2021 but never had a chance to attempt it in Tokyo, which would have added the vault to the sport's Code of Points with her name next to it. The one she completed on Friday may have been better than any she's done at her home gym back in Houston.
"She's one of the rare gymnasts that go to meet and does it even better under pressure," Landi said. "If she's very ready, at meets you're going to see her explode."
Biles certainly appears ready to have her passport stamped for Belgium in the fall when the U.S. women head to Antwerp for the world championships.
There's a good chance Jones and Skye Blakely will join her.
Jones, the runner-up at nationals last year and a three-time silver medalist at the 2022 world championships, put together a bar routine that included a stunning 14.9 on uneven bars. At 5-foot-6 — tall for a gymnast — Jones is a study in fluidity and grace, with a dash of grit.
She's endured a turbulent two years since narrowly missing the 2020 Olympic team. Her father Sylvester died in December 2021 following a battle with kidney disease. Her leotard includes the date of her father's passing stitched in Roman numerals on one of the sleeves.
She enjoyed a breakout 2022 but has been slowed the last 10 months with injuries. Finally healthy, she may be one of the best gymnasts in the world whose last name isn't Biles.
"I never really doubt myself," Jones said. "Like I said, I push myself really hard. I know what I'm capable of doing. And 2024, I'm all in. So whatever it takes, if there's bumps in the road, you know, I'm here for it and we're going to get over it."
Blakely is third at 55.700, with Leanne Wong in fourth at 55.350 and 2020 Olympic silver medalist and three-time world championship medalist Jordan Chiles in fifth.
Reigning Olympic champion Sunisa Lee, who is battling a kidney condition that has limited her training, competed on vault and balance beam. Wearing a leotard inspired by Auburn — where she competed for two seasons — Lee did a relatively easy Yurchenko full on vault and her beam routine was elegant, though she did hop off at the end of an aerial series.
With so many members of the 2020 Olympic group returning, the competition to make the 2024 team will be daunting. Biles is not getting ahead of herself. Not after Tokyo.
So Landi will keep heading out to the vault mat as a precaution, even when Biles makes it look like it's hardly required.
"She's doing good," Landi said. "But we just need to keep looking to make sure we protect her as much as we can."
AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games
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