Simone Biles absence clears path for gymnastics' new wave
Kayla DiCello of the United States is one of a new generation of gymnasts hoping to follow in Simone Biles' footsteps Philip FONG AFP

Gymnastics superstar Simone Biles is not competing at this week's world championships in Japan, but a new generation are hoping to make a name for themselves in her absence.

Biles is currently performing in "Gold Across America", a razzle-dazzle gymnastics stage show also featuring her Tokyo Olympics team-mates Jordan Chiles, MyKayla Skinner and Grace McCallum.

Olympic all-around champion Sunisa Lee has also skipped the world championships to appear on TV show "Dancing with the Stars".

But their absence has given two up-and-coming Americans a chance to stake their claim of becoming gymnastics' next leading lights.

Eighteen-year-old Leanne Wong finished second in qualifying behind Russia's all-around Olympic bronze-medallist Angelina Melnikova, while 17-year-old Kayla DiCello was third.

DiCello, the 2019 junior world vault champion, said Biles was "a really big inspiration" for her.

"She's so amazing and she does so many cool things that a lot of people won't try," DiCello said.

"I just think she's awesome."

Biles has dominated women's gymnastics for the past decade, winning 19 world championships golds and topping the Olympic podium four times.

Biles has dominated women's gymnastics for the past decade, winning 19 world championships golds and topping the Olympic podium four timesBiles has dominated women's gymnastics for the past decade, winning 19 world championships golds and topping the Olympic podium four times Katharine Lotze GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP

But her place at the top is now in doubt after a troubled summer in which she pulled out of several events at the Tokyo Games.

Biles said she was suffering from the "twisties" -- a psychological condition that renders gymnasts unable to orientate themselves in mid-air.

A survivor of sexual abuse, she also said the Larry Nassar scandal took an overwhelming emotional toll on her.

- 'The new stars' -

Biles has not yet indicated when she will return to gymnastics, and only last month said she "should have quit way before Tokyo."

But the influence she has had on the next generation is clear.

"We've learned so much from Simone, just watching her compete over all the years and all the experience she's had," said Wong.

"We're finally getting to experience what she has in the past."

Wong was an alternate for the US Olympic team in Tokyo, but she was forced to quarantine for her entire stay after her roommate tested positive for coronavirus.

Melnikova is the favourite to win the all-around world title this week in Kitakyushu, in western Japan.

Russia's Angelina Melnikova is the favourite to win the women's all-around title world title in JapanRussia's Angelina Melnikova is the favorite to win the women's all-around title world title in Japan Philip FONG AFP

Brazil's Olympic all-around silver-medallist Rebeca Andrade dropped out of the overall event to save wear and tear on her body.

Instead she is competing on the uneven bars, balance beam and vault -- the event on which she claimed Olympic gold this summer.

"I'm really proud to be here," Andrade said after topping qualifying in vault and uneven bars.

"It's really nice for gymnastics that there are always new girls competing. It's awesome to be here with the new generation, the new stars of gymnastics."

Japan's Mai Murakami has also withdrawn from the all-around event to focus on individual apparatus.

And she also believes the stage is set for youth to take advantage.

"After the Rio Olympics, I competed at the world championships and won a gold," said Murakami who is contemplating retiring after the event.

"After that, I was able to win a lot of medals at world championships, so it's a good chance for someone to win their first medal and take that next step."

© 2021 AFP