RIO DE JANEIRO – It’s confirmed: Simone Biles is human after all.
Monday afternoon inside Rio Olympic Arena, Olympic all-around champion Biles saved a fall on the balance beam just barely, but the mistake cost her a fourth gold medal at these Games.
She still made the podium, however, Biles finishing third with a 14.733, the first sub-15 score for her on beam in Rio.
Instead, it was her teammate Laurie Hernandez who delivered when she needed to, the 16-year-old hitting a beautiful routine to score a 15.333, which secured her a first individual Olympic medal as she finished second behind Dutch gymnast Sanne Wevers, who scored a 15.466.
“I’m just happy that I could perform the way that I do in practice,” a beaming Hernandez told reporters. “I just went out there with a calm and collected mindset. To get my own little medal is pretty big, I guess. To get any color medal is amazing.”
Hernandez and Biles were joined by Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Madison Kocian for the team gold medal on Tuesday before Biles and Raisman went 1-2 in the individual all-around.
The bronze-medal finish for Biles stops what had thus far been a purely golden Olympics for the 19-year-old from Texas, who won the team, all-around and vault titles. She was en route to become the first woman to win five gymnastics golds at a single Olympics, with the floor exercise final still to come Tuesday.
But Biles was happy to even be on the podium.
“I’m a little disappointed in the front tuck that I did,” Biles said matter-of-factly, bronze medal hanging around her neck. “The first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, Simone, that was five tenths.’ But then the rest of the routine I could hear my teammates saying that I was fine and I regrouped myself. I didn’t even put on my medal ceremony outfit because a 14.7 isn’t even that good on beam. I didn’t think I medaled.”
She did, however, and coach Aimee Boorman said it was a nod to Biles’ fighting spirit that she didn’t completely fall off the beam it what was an under-rotated front tuck.
“Yes, she is human,” Boorman said. “I don’t know how she made that save because both of her feet were coming off of the beam. I was pretty impressed with that. That took superhuman powers. I see it as a triumph. She won a bronze medal on beam at the Olympics. That’s huge.”
Martha Karolyi, the national team coordinator for the U.S. women, saw it as a blip in Biles’ focus, but echoed Boorman’s sentiment in the power of Biles’ save.
“There is total focus required when you have to do those tumbling skills on the four-inch wide beam,” said Karolyi. “(The save) showed the strength of character. Even with a pretty big mistake, being able to get the bronze medal, it shows she’s a high-class gymnast.”
The pair of medals on the beam mark the fist time that two American women have landed on the podium on the event since Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin went 1-2 in 2008. It is medals No. 7 and 8 for the Team USA women here, after team gold, a pair of medals in the all-around, Biles’ gold on vault and Kocian’s silver on uneven bars.
Biles caught herself from a fall on a punch front, touching her hands to the beam, which took a half point off her total score. It was enough to leave the door open for Wevers and Hernandez, who were yet to come.
It stops Biles’ quest to win five gold medals in one Olympics, which has never been done before. But the American said that wasn’t a personal goal – only one that has come from the media covering her.
“At 19, I can’t put all that stress on myself,” Biles said sternly. “I’m only 19. You guys want it more than I do. I just want to do the routines that I practice. It’s human – you just get a little nervous.”
Tuesday, Biles will be joined by Raisman in the floor final, where Biles is favored while Raisman is the reigning Olympic champion. Danell Leyva and Sam Mikulak compete in men’s finals, as well, with Leyva on both parallel bars and the high bar, while Mikulak will only do the latter.
Only three women – Larisa Latynina (1956), Vera Caslavska (1968) and Ecaterina Szabo (1984) – have won four gold medals in one Games, which Biles will try to do on Tuesday.
“She’s going to want to come out and win floor tomorrow,” said Boorman. “I don’t think one event has anything to do with the other. The drive for five wasn’t a big thing in her mind… she hasn’t said anything about it.”
It was a standout moment for Hernandez, however, who many see as the future of women’s gymnastics in the U.S. As her name was announced for the silver medal, she glanced over at Biles several times and broke into an electric smile. A strained ab muscle here made her ineligible to compete for a spot in the all-around final, but she proved herself in her lone event following the team gold.
“I’m so happy that Laurie could share with the world what she does in practice,” said Biles. “I’m so proud of her. She deserves it more than anyone.”
Hernandez had a few wobbles of her own, but was strong in her beam routine with Biles and company watching nearby. After a small hop on the dismount, she clenched her fists tight and bounced to the side of the podium, where longtime coach Maggie Haney was waiting. They hugged.
“I kept saying to her, ‘You can do it, you can do it,’” said Haney. “She told me that she was going up there and pretending that it was just the two of us in the gym, no cameras.”
The approach worked, and Biles – as well as Boorman – were there to hug Hernandez, as well. Just over a year ago she was the junior national champion and now she’s leaving Rio with two Olympic medals.
“I was sure that she could be a medal contender, but being a contender and winning a medal, that is another (thing),” said Karolyi. “She proved my feeling that she is world-class, especially on the beam.”
“I was really happy with how I performed today,” said Hernandez. “I was in my own little zone.”
It’s a zone that has mostly belonged to Biles this Olympics, but on this day she was happy to share. Not every Olympic routine can be rock solid, and Biles showed heart in earning her bronze, even if it wasn’t the color people expected.
“She should be proud of it,” said Boorman. “Honestly, besides that error, the rest of the routine was really excellent. Sometimes, your feet slip.”