HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Simone Biles blew her first chance to show Martha Karolyi she could handle the big stage.
There was no way she was going to let a chance at redemption slip away.
The stunningly powerful 16-year-old soared to the top of the U.S. women's gymnastics championships Thursday night, posting a score of 60.500 to lead a field that includes Olympic gold medalists Kyla Ross.
Bounding across the arena with the kind of hops that would make LeBron James do a double-take, the 4-foot-8 spring-loaded Texan found a pretty simple way to avoid the jitters that led to a disastrous meet in Chicago last month.
Told by her more experienced teammates to just ignore all the noise that comes with moving up to the sport's stratosphere, Biles took a deep breath and went back to work.
"It's kind of easy because I block out my parents, my siblings," Biles said, laughing.
Biles' score certainly blocked out the bold-faced names behind her.
Ross and McKayla Maroney are considered the standardbearers of the women's program while the rest of their Olympic gold-medal winning "Fierce Five" teammates slowly rebuild their programs after a lengthy break.
While they certainly looked like their old selves — Ross is second after putting up a score of 59.750 while Maroney edged Biles for the top spot on vault — they also had pretty good seats to watch Biles resurrect her bid to make the 2013 U.S. world championship team.
"She blows my mind with her stuff," Maroney said. "She's amazing."
Even more, she's confident thanks to a receiving a series of pep talks, the most important one coming from U.S. women's program coordinator Karolyi. Worried Karolyi lost faith in her after faring so poorly in the qualifier, Biles exhaled when the legendary coach urged her to get back to the self-assuredness that helped her grab the title at a key international meet in Europe this spring.
"She said, 'I saw what you did in Italy, so just turn the page,'" Biles said. "It made me feel a lot better knowing she's behind me."
Brenna Dowell was third, followed by Peyton Ernst and Maggie Nichols.
Maroney, the silver medalist on vault in London, posted the highest score on her signature event in her first major competition since undergoing a series of leg surgeries last fall. Maroney averaged 15.5 on her two vaults, edging Biles by a tenth of a point.
It wasn't perfect. It doesn't have to be yet. Maroney is still building toward worlds, hoping to put her disappointing silver medal in London behind her — the one that launched the infamous "not impressed" face. A world championship gold medal to bookend the one she captured in Tokyo two years ago would help.
"I felt good," Maroney said. "I felt a little bit better than I did in Chicago. The nerves weren't in your head as bad."
And the nerves are there, even if the stage isn't quite as big as the one Ross and Maroney faced with the world watching last summer.
While Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman took a break following their dominant performance in London in which they won the team gold and brought home a fistful of individual medals, Maroney and Ross instead opted to get back to work quickly.
Though she lacks the explosive presence of her Olympic teammates, Ross makes up for it with an uncommon elegance that can make even the most difficult combinations look effortless.
The 16-year-old, whose father is a former professional baseball player, glides over the beam as if the 4-inch wide piece of wood perched 4 feet off the ground is the width of a football field. When she is on uneven bars, she doesn't lunge as much as she floats.
"It's gorgeous," Maroney said about Ross' bar routine. "I almost passed out."
Still, her lights-out 15.5 on her final event couldn't close the gap on Biles.
The compact kid from Spring, Texas, who is all muscle and kinetic energy. At times, that has gotten the best of her.
Biles expected some jitters when she went to the Secret Classic. She didn't expect to fall on each of her first three rotations. Things went so badly her coaches told her to not even bother vaulting, fearing she may aggravate an ankle injury.
Four weeks and a steady stream of texts from Ross and Maroney later, Biles looked like a pro.
She breezed through uneven bars and avoided any major miscues on the beam. Her confidence growing with each successful set, Biles soared on floor exercise. Generating the kind of hangtime that makes it appear she's going up for an alley-oop pass, Biles played to the crowd, embracing the spotlight she shrunk from last month.
Biles wasn't done. While Maroney is considered the best vaulter of her generation, Biles served the gap between Maroney and the rest of the world is narrowing.
She actually outscored Maroney on the Amanar — the most difficult vault currently being done in competition — putting up a 15.8 to Maroney's 15.7. Biles' second vault isn't quite as hard, giving Maroney just enough wiggle room to remain in front.
Still, Biles clapped her hands after coming back to earth after clearing her first major hurdle toward worlds.
"It was important," Biles said. "I needed to show myself I could do it."
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