TAMPA — When Simone Biles competed at the U.S. national championships through much of the past decade, it wasn’t really a contest — at least not for first place. Even her competitors sometimes admitted the real race was for the silver medal.

That’s no longer the case. The senior elite field this year in Tampa includes two returning Olympians, Jade Carey and Jordan Chiles, plus a pair of world all-around medalists in Leanne Wong and Kayla DiCello. Konnor McClain, 17, has won three all-around gold medals this year. Shilese Jones soars with excellent amplitude on each apparatus, and Skye Blakely excels with her powerful tumbling both on floor and beam. Entering the competition, any combination of these gymnasts on the podium wouldn’t have seemed surprising. Together, they delivered a thrilling competition mostly free of major errors from the best athletes.

The margins at the top of the standings stayed tight throughout Friday evening at Amalie Arena, but Jones, a 20-year-old who has never competed at the world championships or the Olympics, emerged as the headliner. Her highflying release elements on bars and powerful yet controlled tumbling on floor gave her the best marks on each of those apparatuses — even ahead of Carey, the floor gold medalist in Tokyo. She sits in the lead with at 57.200, but less than a point separates her from McClain, whose strong beam performance helped her to a mark of 56.400 after the first of two nights of competition.

“I’ve been dreaming about it, and I knew it was possible,” said Jones, who had previously planned to only try for the Olympics once but, after missing out on Tokyo, is already looking toward Paris.

They’ll have to repeat those strong routines Sunday to vie for the all-around title. Results at nationals depend on cumulative scores across both days, so consistency bolsters a gymnast’s chances, especially in a race as wide open as this one. The top five gymnasts are separated by just 1.55, so any significant mistake will shuffle the standings.

Chiles (56.150) sits in third, just ahead of DiCello (55.950). Carey landed in fifth, mostly because the others performed so well and her beam and bars scores weren’t on par with the other top Americans. But she capped the evening with a strong floor routine, earning a 14.050, only topped by Jones (14.100) who followed her in the final rotation.

“We’re in a really great place,” Carey said of the U.S. women. “It’s nice to see a lot of big gymnastics again.”

After performing a strong bars routine and a beam set with a couple minor errors, Wong scratched the rest of the competition and her status for Sunday remained uncertain.

The drama around the top spot is an unfamiliar predicament at this competition. Biles won the U.S. all-around title seven times during her senior career, only missing out on the crown in 2017 when she skipped the season after her Olympic debut. Biles won her first senior title by a narrow edge as a 16-year-old in 2013. After that, her margins of victory were massive, nearly five points better on average in a sport that can often be determined by tenths.

The margin of victory at gymnastics nationals ballooned when Simone Biles’s dominance began

Biles won the national all-around titles from 2013 to 2016 and from 2018 to 2021. Only once — as a 16-year-old in 2013 — was she closely challenged for the title. Before Biles made her senior debut in 2013, the top spot on the podium was usually more closely contested. Biles’s appearances are shown in bold; she skipped the 2017 elite season.

Now these athletes — a 21-gymnast field without anybody who’s won a senior national all-around title — are next in line, all hoping to join a distinguished list of champions from this marquee event.

After their freshman seasons of NCAA gymnastics, Carey and Chiles appeared in an elite competition for the first time since the Tokyo Games. Chiles was particularly pleased with her showing on bars — earning a 14.250, the second-best score — because she’s dealt with a recent shoulder injury. Both Carey and Chiles are eying the Paris Games, and their ambitions of making the world championships team are the first step toward that goal. But they’re being challenged by their peers, particularly the impressive performances of Jones and McClain. Jones had the best scores on bars (14.850) and floor, while McClain topped the field on beam (14.800).

Simone Biles

“For me, I just think all competition is the same, honestly,” Jones said. “I just worry about myself and know that I have to hit, and if I hit I can be on top.”

DiCello, an 18-year-old from Boyds, Md., missed months of training this winter because of a back injury. Finally healthy, she was solid, avoiding major errors. Blakely fell on a difficult element in her beam routine — a backflip with a full twist — but was strong the rest of the night.

Biles hasn’t retired from the sport, but since Tokyo, she has yet to give an indication that she’s planning a return. For now, the U.S. women’s team will aim to maintain its excellence without her. The massive cushion Biles had in individual competitions translated to the team’s margin ahead of its peers. The Americans won the gold at each world championships and Olympics from 2011 to 2019, then took the silver behind the Russian Olympic Committee in Tokyo when Biles withdrew after the first rotation of the final.

“Simone’s an anomaly and obviously the best gymnast of a lot of our times,” Alicia Sacramone Quinn, the strategic lead of the three-person high performance team, said before this competition. “And I think that we have some work to do to close that margin.”

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