TOKYO – Simone Biles came to Tokyo as the star of the US Olympic movement and perhaps the games themselves. She made sure she was ready for the pressure. That she was ready to bear the burden of excessive expectations.
Only when the women’s gymnastics team final approached on Tuesday night did something feel. And the athlete, widely considered the greatest of all time in her sport, knew it.
So instead of overcoming the doubts that crept inside her head, as she has so often in the past, Biles decided that enough was enough. She was done. For now.
The American star retired from competition after a rotation and opened the door to the team of Russian athletes to win gold for the first time in nearly three decades.
Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum led the US to silver while Biles cheered from the sidelines in a white tracksuit, at peace with a decision that revealed a change not just in Biles but perhaps in the sport they play has redefined.
“We also have to focus on ourselves because at the end of the day we are human too,” said Biles. “So we have to protect our minds and our bodies instead of just going out and doing what the world wants us to do.”
“I had to do what is right for me and not endanger my health and well-being,” she added. “So I decided to take a step back and let them do their job.”
The Americans – powered by a uneven bars routine by Lee – drew within eight tenths of a point in three turns. However, ROC never wavered on the ground. And they broke out when she was 21 years old Angelina MelnikovaThe result secured them first place on the podium for the first time since the Unified Team’s victory in Barcelona in 1992.
The win came a day after the ROC men’s team ousted Japan for first place in the men’s final. Great Britain defeated Italy for bronze.
“The impossible is possible now,” said Melnikova.
Maybe in more ways than one.
In the five years since Biles and the United States put on a dazzling show in Rio de Janeiro on the road to gold, gymnastics has seen a reckoning. The tectonic plates move in a sport where obedience, discipline and silence have long been as important as talent and artistry.
Biles has become an outspoken advocate of athletic rights and the importance of adequate mental health. There was a time, there were even many times, when she felt she wasn’t right and she just persevered because that’s what people expected of her.
“There have been a couple of days when everyone is tweeting and you feel the weight of the world,” she said. “We’re not just athletes, we are people at the end of the day, and sometimes you just have to take a step back. … I didn’t want to go out and do something stupid and get hurt … I feel like a lot Athletes who speak up have really helped. “
Biles is the youngest in a line of high profile athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka, who have used their platforms to discuss their mental health issues. A subject that was once taboo has become far more accepted and adopted.
US Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland applauded Biles for prioritizing her “spiritual well-being over everything else” and offered her full support. The vice president of the US Gymnastics Women’s Program called Biles’ act “incredibly selfless”.
Biles posted on social media on Monday that she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders after an unusually sloppy performance during qualifying saw Americans for the ROC on the scoreboard.
“It wasn’t an easy day or my best day, but I got through it,” she wrote on Instagram. “I know I take it away and make it look like pressure doesn’t affect me, but damn it is hard sometimes, hahaha!”
“Olympia is not a joke!”
The tension affected her practice. It affected her confidence. And when she entered the vault, she finally found her way to her performance.
She should do an “amanar” jump, which requires a round hand jump on the table, followed by 2 1/2 turns. Instead, Biles made only 1 1/2 turns with a big leap forward after landing. She sat down and spoke to US team doctor Marcia Faustin, then went to the back while the rest of the Americans went to the uneven bars without her.
When Biles returned a few minutes later, she hugged her teammates and took off her handlebars. And so her night was over.
“I had to do what is right for me and not endanger my health and well-being,” said Biles. “So I decided to take a step back and let them do their job.”
“It’s very sad to see how it turns out because I think these Olympics are somehow part of her,” said Lee.
Biles should defend her Olympic title in the all-around final on Thursday. She also qualified for all four event finals later in the games. She said she will regroup on Wednesday before deciding whether to move on.
“I just don’t trust myself that much anymore. I don’t know if it’s my age, I’m just more nervous about gymnastics. I also feel like I’m not having as much fun games as I wanted it to be for is myself. I still do it for other people. “
She added, “Ultimately, we don’t want to be carried out of there on a stretcher … you have to be 100% there because if you aren’t, you will be hurt.”
Biles’ abrupt absence forced the Americans to crawl a little. The final is a three-up / three-count format, which means that each country enrolls three of its four athletes on one device, with all three scores counting.
Chiles jumped in to take Biles’ place on the uneven bars and balance beam. The 20-year-old, who made up the team with her constant consistency, managed a solid bar routine and practiced her balance beam set two days after falling twice at the event.
Thanks in part to a little help from ROC – which counted two falls on the beam – the US pulled within striking distance of the ground, the final spin.
Without Biles and her otherworldly fall, the US would have to be near perfect to fill the void. It did not happen. Chiles stumbled onto the mat at the end of their second round, and every chance the US had to chase ROC came right along with it.
Not that Chiles or the rest of Americans bothered about it that much. The gold may have disappeared, but something more significant could have happened instead. It’s a compromise they can live with.
“This medal is definitely for (Biles),” said Chiles. “If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t be where we are now. We wouldn’t be a silver medalist because she is as a person.”
Chiles then turned to her good friend. Biles helped her move to Houston two years ago to train with her, a decision that made Chiles an Olympian. In an empty arena in the middle of Japan, while the world was watching, Chiles did for Biles what Biles has done for so many for so long. She had her back.
“Kudos to you girls,” said Chiles. “That’s all for you.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.