TOKYO >> They stood on the edge of the competition area at the Ariake Gymnastics Center early Tuesday evening, Simone Biles and her coach Cecile Landi, awaiting the scores of the previous gymnast in the Olympic Games balance beam competition to be posted.
Landi put her right around Biles and tried to lighten the moment.
And then Biles was alone, turning to face the beam and a moment the world had waited a week for.
Biles took a deep breath.
She wasn’t alone.
Biles, seven days after she stunned these Olympics by withdrawing in the middle of the team finals, returned to the Games she has been the face of earning a bronze medal on the beam with a solid, if safe, routine.
It was the Hollywood ending her millions of fans –or NBC–might have wanted, but if nothing else Biles has reminded us this past week that life is complicated.
China’s Guan Chenchen, competing last, won the gold medal with a 14.633 score followed by teammate Tang Xijing (14.233) and Biles (14.00).
It was Biles sixth Olympic medal but her presence in Tokyo will be best remembered for her withdrawal from the team final, individual all around, and earlier apparatus finals forcing her country and her sport to have real discussions, often heated, about mental health, especially in regards to young athletes.
“It’s great that she is speaking out about these issues,” said Sweden’s Mondo Duplantis, the world record holder in the pole vault. “It can be tough as an athlete and it’s good that the issues are being raised now.”
And elevating that discussion as she has her sport will be as much of legacy as her four Olympic and 19 World Championship titles.
“I think just recognizing that it’s so hard and the mental aspect is such a big thing and having the confidence to draw the line and say you know I need to step back here and take some time for myself to center myself,” U.S. beach volleyball player April Ross said. “I think that’s really empowering and that’s something that youths should feel like they can do too, so I think what she did will really impact the future generation.”
Biles withdrawal came with the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal still looming over the sport and the Olympic movement.
Biles is a Nassar survivor and has been the highest profile and one of the most vocal critics of USA Gymnastics and its prioritize athlete safety over medals and corporate sponsorships and to fix the culture of abuse within the sport that enabled Nassar, the former Olympic and national team doctor to sexually abuse more than 500 women under the guise of medical treatment.
Biles was not only the ultimate champion in the #MeToo era, with Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and American swimmer Michael Phelps retiring after the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro she was the face of the Olympic Games.
“I live in the United States and anything that came on the TV, NBC or commercials about the Olympics it was Simone Biles,” golfer Rory McIlroy said. “I mean it was the Simone Biles Olympics, right. To have the weight of what 300 whatever million (people in the USA). So, the weight on her shoulders is massive.”
In the days and weeks leading up to Tokyo that weight became overwhelming, Biles said.
“In the back gym, coming in today, it was like fighting all those demons, ‘I have to put my pride aside, I have to do it for the team,’” Biles said on the night of her withdrawal from the team competition, referring to the Olympic practice gym. “At the end of the day, I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health, and not jeopardize my health and well-being. …
“I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to. I don’t know if it’s age. I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I’m also not having as much fun, and I know that this Olympic Games,” she continued starting to weep, “I wanted it to be for myself.
“I was still doing it for other people, so it hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
The stress contributed to Biles developing spatial awareness issues when she was airborne, what gymnasts refer to as the “twisties.”
“If you struggle with disorientation in the air,” Italian gymnast Vanessa Ferrari said “it can be very scary. I feel very sorry for her that she struggles with it, as she is such a great gymnast.”
Biles had planned to do a Yurcenko 2½ vault on the opening rotation of team competition final. But only managed 1½ rotations before stumbling on the landing. She received a 13.766 score, well before her usual marks in an event in which she was the reigning the Olympic champion and a two-time World Championships gold medalist.
“I did not choose to do a one-and-a-half,” Biles said laughing. “I tried to do a two-and-a-half, and that just was not clicking. It’s very uncharacteristic of me, and it just sucks that it happened here at the Olympic Games. With the year that it’s been, I’m really not surprised how it played out.
“So it definitely wasn’t my best work.”
Returning the sideline, Biles informed her coaches and teammates she was withdrawing.
People need to understand that athletes are no robots, but humans,” said Rebeca Andrade of Brazil, who succeeded Biles as Olympic vault champion. “The decision she made was the wisest thing to do and it had nothing to do with others.”
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