With A Bronze-Medal Performance On Beam Simone Biles Leaves Tokyo On Her Own Terms

by Chrös McDougall

Simone Biles poses at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 3, 2021 in Tokyo.


TOKYO — Five years ago, Simone Biles won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and everyone seemed to be disappointed. That shouldn’t be a problem this time.
A week after withdrawing from the gymnastics team final with a condition known as “the twisties,” then subsequently pulling out of the all-around and three event finals, Biles made her emotional return to the Ariake Gymnastics Center Tuesday for the balance beam final, the last women’s event at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. It was five years ago that she “only” won bronze on beam, after winning four other gold medals.
Having seeing her world spin out of control over the past eight days, the 24-year-old gymnastics superstar just wanted to complete a routine and leave Tokyo on her own terms. Instead she delivered a trademark performance filled with flair and confidence that ultimately proved good enough for a bronze medal, even if that hardware felt like a bonus.

“I was just happy to be able to perform, regardless of the outcome,” Biles said. “I did it for me, and I was just proud of myself for being able to compete one more time.”

Coming into Tokyo as the face of Team USA, the five-time medalist from Rio stunned observers last Tuesday when she walked out of the team final after the first rotation. Her decision to withdraw citing mental health, rather than a physical issue, made headlines around the world.

A four-time Olympic gold medalist and 19-time world champion, Biles’ talent and ability to perform under pressure are well documented. What happened that night was something different.

The troubles began for Biles after the qualifying round on Aug. 25. Team USA, the overwhelming favorite for gold, finished second following a breakout performance by the Russian Olympic Committee.

“I think there was a sense of everybody freaking out except for us that the Russians were ahead of us,” Biles said.

At practice the next morning, Biles went through uneven bars fine, then moved on to some leaps and turns on floor exercise. When she went to do a tumbling pass, though, something was immediately off.

“That’s when the wires just snapped,” she said. “Things were not connecting, and I don’t know what went wrong.”

One day later, in the team final, the U.S. started on vault. Biles is a two-time world champion on the event, as well as the defending Olympic gold medalist. She performs the most difficult vaults in the world, often making them look effortless. But when she pushed off the block for her Amanar, a vault with 2.5 twists, she still wasn’t feeling right. Biles managed to twist just 1.5 times, then barely landed on her feet.

Moments later, she told her coach Cecile Landi that she had to stop, both for her own safety and the good of the team.

“Once she looked at me and said I can’t do it, I saw it in her eyes,” Landi said. “I could see that it was beyond that I can’t do it (because) I’m scared; it was I really cannot.”

The team went on to win a silver medal, and in the coming days Biles confirmed she was experiencing the twisties. Little understood by those outside the gymnastics, the twisties is something all gymnasts know. Many have dealt with it, on one level or another, including Biles. When a gymnast has the twisties, they inexplicably lose the muscle memory and air awareness that allows them to perform their acrobatic skills. Similar phenomena exists among baseball players and golfers — a baseball player who suddenly can’t throw the ball is said to have “the yips” — but those athletes don’t risk fatal injury by playing through it.

“My problem was my body and my mind weren’t in sync,” Biles said. “That’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around. What happened? Was I was overtired? And where did the wires not connect? That was really hard because I trained my whole life, I was physically ready, I was fine, and then this happens. And it’s something that was so out of my control.”

The decision to pull out, Biles said, wasn’t made in haste. She wanted to compete. After all, she’d become the first woman since 1992 to qualify for all five individual finals and was the prohibitive favorite in at least three of them. Pulling out was never a choice, though.

“I physically knew that I literally couldn’t do it,” Biles said. “So there was no point. I had to pull out.”

The withdrawal sent shockwaves through the sports world. If Biles had broken her leg, no one would have questioned the move. But because her condition involved mental health — something that can’t be seen — it made her a lightning rod. A certain segment of media provocateurs lined up to question her mettle. Social media grasped onto the topic too, with no shortage of opinions or theories.

The negative attention was draining for Biles, who has voiced her frustration over the years about people treating her as some sort of superhuman. Now they were treating her like a soap opera character.

“At the end of the day we’re not just entertainment, we’re humans,” she said. “I think people forget that. They have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes. They just judge from our social media.”

Simone Biles competes at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 3, 2021 in Tokyo.


Case in point, one online theory posited that Biles was struggling because her family couldn’t be in Tokyo to support her. The reality? “My mom nags me every five minutes trying to call me, so I feel like she’s right here,” Biles said. Another theory wondered if Biles had been forced to leave her ADHD medicine at home, owing to Japan’s strict rules on what can be brought into the country, and maybe that had affected her.
Something that did affect Biles, however, was that she woke up one morning to learn an aunt had died unexpectedly back home.
“You guys have no idea what we’re going through,” Biles said.
What helped was that most of the reaction to Biles’ situation had been supportive, especially among fellow elite athletes. One day Biles stopped into the Olympic Village to buy some souvenirs at the store there, and she became so overwhelmed by the parade of athletes coming to offer their appreciation that the tears started flowing.
“I’m definitely feeling love and support,” she said, “and I didn’t feel like that was going to happen.”
Even as this frenzy engulfed Biles’ world, she never gave up hope that she could return to competition. She continued practicing, while also having a medical evaluation each day. In addition, she met twice a day with a sports psychologist provided by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. All of this helped. The twisties didn’t just go away, though.
“Every time I watch the guys and the girls out there I want to puke,” Biles said. “Every time I watch them do a double-double, because I cannot fathom how they’re doing it. I don’t understand.”
As finals approached, Biles withdrew from the all-around, then the bars, floor and vault finals. On Monday, with the deadline closing in to set the lineup for the beam final, Biles got her clearance. She was in.
Landi never questioned her star pupil.
“I could see it in her eyes,” Landi said. “She doesn’t need to please us, she doesn’t need to do anything for us. I could see in her eyes she wanted to do it.”
Biles still isn’t free from the twisties. She’s the only person in the world who can do a double-twisting, double back dismount. That was a nonstarter. Even the full-twisting double back she had done earlier in competition was too much. Instead, she changed her dismount to the easier double pike, which doesn’t involve any spins.
The two times Biles previously competed in Tokyo were in-demand events for the limited number of delegation officials allowed into the arenas. Tuesday night might have been even more intense. A crowd that included International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon, who is working here as a broadcaster, were in-house at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre. The largest mass of people gravitated to the southwest corner, where the balance beam was set up.
Biles had looked confident in training before the meet. When it started, Biles sat in a folding chair, calmly watching the first two gymnasts. At her turn, the gymnast closed her eyes took a deep breath, then climbed onto the podium like she has done so many times over the past nine years.
Suddenly, the world that had once seemed so chaotic felt normal again.
Biles mounted the bean and confidently spun three times while knelt on one foot — called a wolf turn. She then marched through each element with her usual authority. Though she missed a connection between elements and had to check her balance at one point, she was otherwise the same gymnast who had never failed to reach the podium in six previous balance beam finals at the Olympics and world championships.

Simone Biles competes at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 3, 2021 in Tokyo.


While waiting for scores, the arena PA system echoed the deep thuds of a pounding heart, accurately reflecting the mood as the otherwise silent crowd waited for her score. That silence became a crescendo when 14.000 popped up on the scoreboard.
The score was lower than she had done in qualifications, when she had performed the higher-difficulty routine, and another gymnast had already scored higher in finals. Once the five remaining gymnasts finished, however, Biles remained in third place, behind Chinese teammates Guan Chenchen (14.633) and Tang Xijing (14.233). U.S. teammate Suni Lee, coming off a win in the all-around Thursday, scored 13.866 to take fifth.
“Just to have the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games meant the world,” Biles said. “Because training for five years and then coming here, then kind of being triggered and not being able to do anything, it wasn’t fun. To go out there and compete one more time and have everyone's support meant the world.”
Biles knows that life won’t necessarily get easier when she returns home to Texas. She’s eager to get home and see her parents and her boyfriend and her dogs, French bulldogs Lilo and Rambo. Starting in September, she’ll lead a 35-city tour with some of her Olympic teammates as well as other gymnastics stars. In the meantime, she is determined to take care of herself, including through medicine and therapy.
As for her gymnastics future? Give her some time. Biles had once said Tokyo would be her last Olympics, then hinted that she might try to make the Olympic Games Paris 2024 as a specialist. Tonight wasn’t the time to decide.
“I just need to process this whole Olympic term first,” she said. “It’s been a lot. It’s been a long five years.”
Although Biles will head home with fewer medals than she hoped, her two medals in Tokyo still give her seven overall, tying her with Shannon Miller as the most decorated U.S. Olympic gymnast. Biles’ biggest legacy from Tokyo, however, might not be her gymnastics but in the example she’s set by putting herself first.
“My mental and physical health is above all medals I could ever win,” Biles said.

Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic Movement for since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.