ONEs Simone Biles walked into the Ariake Gymnastics Center for the women’s team final at the Tokyo Olympics, the eyes of the sports world slowly turning on her. For many, she was the most dominant female athlete in the world and the greatest gymnast in history, unbeaten in all-around, team and floor competition since 2013. She had pushed the boundaries of the sport even further all summer and after the win, four gold medals and a bronze medal in Rio, it was the beginning of what may be the last and crowning moment of her career.
Instead, it was amazing what h -pened that evening. On her first event in the team final, the jump, Biles lost sight of herself in midair as she tried her 2.5-spinning Yurchenko jump, one of her most trusted skills. After breaking off the skill and somehow avoiding injury, Biles and her national team dis -peared from the competition area. When Biles finally returned, she crouched with her teammates, and then she was done.
After the competition, Biles could have avoided speaking at length or even walking past the journalists in the mixed zone. Instead, numerous reporters walked in awe of what they heard after she openly explained her mental health problems. When asked exactly why she decided not to run, her answer was clear: “To focus on my well-being,” she said. “Life is more than just gymnastics.” Later that evening, during the official press conference, her teammates gathered around her and offered their endless support.
Biles had followed in the footsteps of Naomi Osaka, whom she referred to by putting mental health discussions at the heart of the sport. As with Osaka, another prominent black woman, this immediately sparked predictable backlash and disdain on social media. But Biles remained determined, and in the days that followed, her problems became clearer. She had developed the twisties that occur when a gymnast’s mind and body are out of sync and they are unable to safely complete certain skills. Biles had completely lost her aerial perception during her turning skills, so continuing to compete meant an extremely high chance that she would fall and possibly seriously injure herself.
Each day brought the news that Biles was retiring from another event, but she would still travel to the arena for each final, cheering on her compatriots and rivals from other countries louder than anyone else. Behind the scenes, Biles secretly did everything in her power to return. She found a private gym outside the Olympic Village and every day she tried her skills safely in the foam pits.
At no point in Tokyo did she regain her spinning skills, but Biles decided to remove all spins from her balance beam routine and try to compete on the very last day of the competition. After hearing her mental strength questioned for days, Biles returned to competition and threw down an extremely neat routine to win a bronze medal despite the reduced difficulty.
Biles returns on the beam with one of the most beloved Olympic bronze medals of all time. Photo: Mike Egerton / PA
So much has h -pened to Biles in the past few years that led to the events in Tokyo. She has been competing at the highest level since 2013, for an eternity in women’s gymnastics. Even if she avoided long breaks from injuries, as is common in gymnastics, the years of hammering muscles and joints during training have left painful marks on her body. After nearing a seemingly decent career finish line, she was desperate when the pandemic pushed the Olympics back by a year.
Meanwhile, Biles continued to compete and consolidate her stature while resigning herself to being a very public survivor of sexual abuse by former U.S. team doctor Larry Nassar, who also abused many of her former teammates. She struggled with the reality that the only way to pursue her personal goals in her sport was to represent USA Gymnastics, the organization she hadn’t protected. That she was the last survivor on the team only added to the pressure she felt to keep competing and holding the board of directors accountable.
When Biles picked up her medal on August 3rd and digested her thoughts, she was not yet ready to fully accept the tale that she had ended her week in triumph. When she spoke afterward, she ended most of the comments by stating that, despite her pride in recovering, it was “slimy” that she had to withdraw from so many events. Medals and gold medals aside, after all her efforts to make it to Tokyo, it was overwhelming that she just couldn’t do the way she wanted.
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But in the months since she returned home, Biles has fully understood the implications of her choices with time and space. She values the bronze medal and the strength it took to win it. She has said that over the past few years she has often felt like she was competing for others and this is where she made up her mind. In a sport known for creating a toxic culture of overtraining and competing with injuries, it has shown a generation of new gymnasts the importance of safety and wellbeing. After spending so many years changing her sport within the confines of the competition area, she did so again by withdrawing from it.