Grace McCallum, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Simone Biles on the podium at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO — Simone Biles routinely does things on a gymnastics stage that no one has ever done before. On Tuesday, she did one more.
Performing in the women’s team final at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the greatest gymnast of all time didn’t have it. The morning training session had gone OK. The next five hours in her hotel room had not. By the time the competition finally started, she was a mess.
Opening the night on vault, Biles got “lost” in the air and completed only part of her planed 2.5 twists before landing with a giant lunge forward. That was enough.
“After that fall I was like, I’m not in the right headspace,” she said.
So the 24-year-old gymnastics champion did the unthinkable: She called a mental health day on the biggest stage of her career.
In putting her wellbeing first, Biles dealt a blow to the U.S. team, heavy favorites to win the gold medal in large part because of the four scores Biles was set to contribute. Those teammates, in turn, supported her. Full stop.
Grace McCallum gave her a hug. Jordan Chiles got her to start dancing. And Suni Lee stepped into her spot in the floor exercise lineup with just 30 seconds of warmup time — and she killed it.
“It’s not really about the scoring, it’s not really about medals,” Chiles said. “Yes I understand a lot of people are probably going to say something, but at the end of the day we are who we are as people, and we came together and did our job when we needed to, and that’s what really matters.”
Just a few days ago, the prospect of the U.S. women winning anything but the gold medal here seemed almost inconceivable. On Tuesday night, as the four gymnasts stood together in their matching white Team USA tracksuits, silver medals draped around their necks, missing from their demeanor was any sign of regret.
The Russian Olympic Committee, second to the U.S. at the last Olympics and the two world championships that followed, deservedly won the gold medal with improved routines across the board, scoring 169.528 points to Team USA’s 166.096. The gold medal marked the first for the Russians in the women’s team event since 1992, when the former Soviet Republics did so as the Unified Team. Great Britain, meanwhile, scored 164.096 to claim the bronze medal, its first in women’s team gymnastics since 1928.
The story that will live on brightest from these Olympics, though, is that of Biles and her teammates showing, emphatically, that the person comes before the result.
“She’s more than just an athlete,” said Chiles, her good friend and training partner at World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas. “She’s a person. She’s somebody who’s a sister, a friend, a mom sometimes.
“I saw at the beginning when she was just a little bit hesitant with herself because she felt like she was doing it for everybody, but we were telling her this is for you.”
The first sign that something wasn’t quite right came during the warmups before the first rotation. Two nights earlier, in the qualifying round, Biles wasn’t at her sharpest, but as has come to be expected she made two of the sport’s most difficult vaults — the Cheng and the Amanar — look easy.
During warmups for team finals, when scores reset and each team puts up three athletes per event, with all three scores counting, Biles practiced her Amanar, the slightly less difficult option. This time it didn’t look so easy. Instead of performing the Yurchenko 2.5-twisting vault, she spun only 1.5 times. A few minutes later, in the actual competition, she did it again.
Moments later, she was walking off the floor at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre. It was there that she made the call to withdraw, a decision she said was supported by her coaches.
“I didn’t want to go into any of the other events second-guessing myself,” Biles said. “So I thought it was better if I took a step back and let these girls go out there and do the job.”
In the media mixed zone afterward, Biles put on a strong face. She smiled, she joked, she was upbeat. Her outward confidence belied the struggles she’s been more and more open about in recent years.