Simone Biles made a rousing return to these Olympics, with a last-chance last stand on the balance beam that garnered her a bronze medal, her record-tying seventh and almost certainly final career medal.
Biles delivered a steady, strong routine and while she was, no doubt, trying to win gold, this was as much about competing, and overcoming, than anything else. That a medal came in the end was an added bonus.
China’s 16-year-old sensation Guan Chenchen (14.633) won gold and teammate Tang Xijing Tag (14.233) took silver. They were the two highest qualifiers and thus the favorites to win the event.
Biles, who entered with just the seventh-highest qualifying score, finished third with a 14.000.
“I was just happy to be able to perform regardless of the outcome,” Biles said. “I did it for me and I was happy to be able to compete one more time … Training for five years and coming here and kind of being triggered and not being able to do anything wasn’t fun.”
One week and four competition days after dropping out of the team event citing an inability to perform due to mental stress and a lack of “air awareness,” she triumphantly and enthusiastically returned to an Olympics where she had been expected to be the main event.
Upon cleanly landing her dismount, Biles beamed a smile, clapped her hands, patted her heart and acknowledged the cheers form teammates, opponents, officials and everyone else gathered here, many of whom were standing and cheering. She quickly bear-hugged her coach Cecile Canqueteau-Landi and then teammate Sunisa Lee.
Biles’ routine required no twists in the air — she replaced her dismount with a double pike. That alone may have given her the confidence to perform.
“The other ones I couldn’t physically do without putting health and safety at risk because it is twisting,” Biles said. “Beam, I didn’t have that issue.”
She said she fought for a week to get cleared and confident to perform. She appreciated the outpouring of support both online and at the Olympic Village that she received, but noted that criticism of her was also hurtful and came, she believed, from people who had no understanding of her issues or how the sport of gymnastics works.
“You have to be more mindful of what you say online because you have no knowledge of what the athletes are going through [or] their sports,” Biles said.
She also tried to clear up one online rumor that not being able to take medication for ADHD — which is banned in Japan — was an issue. “I haven’t taken ADHD medication since 2017,” she said.
The pressure of an Olympic final took its toll on the field, where five of the eight qualifiers struggled to perform to the standard of their qualifying, often significantly.
The Olympics are being staged without fans, and that includes here at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre. However, certain fellow athletes and staff can attend events and a relatively sizable crowd came out for this event. That included International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach.
The place was still mostly empty, but they provided a big cheer for Biles when she both was introduced and finished. A number of her teammates shouted and cheered throughout as many others held their breath, just hoping that an athlete who entered the event with six Olympic medals and 25 world championship honors could go out strong.
Biles did that. She bobbled on her triple wolf spin and wobbled later during a leap series, but was mostly solid. Her routine, typically a 6.500 difficulty, had been stripped down to a 6.100. With a 7.9 in execution, she couldn’t overcome the easier routine on the scoreboard.
Lee, who had already won the all-around gold and a bronze on bars, struggled in her routine, although she admirably stayed on the beam during a difficult side aerial combination.
Lee scored a 13.866 and out of medal contention.
Biles had previously withdrawn from every individual event at these Games — all-around, vault, floor and uneven bars. She won gold in the first three of those events at the 2016 Olympics, plus a bronze on balance beam.
The 24-year-old was forced to withdraw from the team competition last Tuesday after a single rotation. She was unable to perform her planned vault — falling a full twist short of completion — and landed awkwardly, delivering a devastatingly low score for her teammates
Biles cited a lack of “air awareness” or what gymnasts call “the twisties” that make trying to complete extremely difficult moves extremely dangerous.
“I didn’t know where I was in the air,” Biles said.
Biles had been both working out in the gym and meeting receiving professional mental health help in hopes of being able to return. She announced Monday that she would give it a shot on beam.
Her decision did not impact any other American gymnast. Lee was already in the final, having qualified third overall. No other U.S. team member would have qualified even if Biles dropped out. By withdrawing in other events, Biles helped assure that all six of the American female gymnasts here left with at least one medal.
The Houston native said she had been suffering from stress, anxiety and mental health issues upon arriving in Tokyo, where the immense pressure to push for perfection became too much.
“These Olympic Games, I wanted it to be about myself,” Biles said last week, as her voice shook with emotion and tears welled up in her eyes. “And I came in and I felt I was still doing it for other people and it hurts my heart that doing what I love has been taken away from me to please other people.
“… I was like, ‘I am not in the right headspace [to continue to compete on team]. I am not going to lose a medal for this country and these girls because they’ve worked way too hard to have me go out there and lose a medal.’”
The United States, almost hopelessly behind Russia after the first team rotation, was able to still win silver with Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum handling all of the remaining rotations. Biles received a silver with them.
An outpouring of both support and criticism followed.
Gymnasts detailed their struggles with focus, concentration and the dreaded twisties. Others praised Biles for acknowledging mental health issues, a once-taboo topic especially for elite athletes. Yet still others criticized her for thinking she somehow “quit” on her team.
Biles never returned though, seemingly proving that this wasn’t about quitting an event but a deeper struggle that wiped out an Olympics she trained years — including a year longer than expected — to compete in.
She was expected to be one of the biggest stars in Tokyo and was the centerpiece of NBC’s coverage in the United States. Instead she attempted just one doomed vault here, and despite continued training and sessions with professional help she was unable to get back on the mat.
She spent the rest of the time cheering on her teammates from the stands. That included a number of gymnasts who were able to step into competition slotsvacated by her withdrawals.
“She’s handling better than I thought,” said teammate MyKayla Skinner, who won silver in vault after Biles dropped out and opened a spot in the finals. “Every day she has been laughing and giggling, super supportive. I’m sure when she gets home it’ll probably hit her more.
“But honestly she’s been the happiest person and I am so happy to see what all she’s been through that she’s making the best of it.”
On Tuesday, she finally got her chance to perform and didn’t disappoint.
By Dan Wetzel