On Night When Simone Biles Put Wellbeing First, Her Teammates Stepped Up Both For Her And For Silver
by Chrös McDougall
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.
Sunisa Lee competes at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Since the Rio Games, when she won four gold medals and a bronze, Biles has only gotten better. In 2019 she won her fifth world all-around title and her 19th overall, both extending records she already owned. In the first Olympics in a generation without Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, that meant Biles arrived in Tokyo as the de facto face of the Games.
Fans began referring to Biles as the GOAT — the Greatest Of All Time — a monicker the gymnast embraced, even competing with an embroidered goat on her leotard in meets earlier this year. But being the GOAT creates expectations. Biles has established an incredibly high standard for herself, and now the world is ready for a show.
Biles has also been carrying personal burdens. She revealed she’s among the dozens of girls and women who had been sexually abused by the former national team doctor, and her trauma from that experience has only lingered as aspects of that situation remain unresolved. Combined with the uncertainty from the pandemic year in 2020, including the one-year postponement of these Olympic Games, and Biles is tired.
Sitting in her hotel room waiting for the Olympics to start, Biles said she couldn’t shake that heavy feeling of the world resting on her shoulders.
“Yeah,” she said, “it’s heavy.”
During that first rotation, all that weight finally pinned her down.
“Therapy has helped a lot, as well as medicine, and I feel like that’s all been going really well, but then whenever you get in a high stress situation you kind of freak out and you don’t really know how to handle all of those emotions, especially being here at the Olympic Games,” she said. “Yes we have tons of resources available to us, but I’m one to kind of tough it out to the last minute. Obviously it didn’t work that way.”
In these pandemic-delayed Games, held in arenas with some delegation attendees and volunteers but no paying fans, the women’s team final was arguably the hottest ticket in Tokyo for those lucky enough to have access. With just a few opportunities to witness the peerless Biles in Tokyo, none was as high profile as this, where the dominant U.S. squad was looking to extend its winning streak to eight global championship in eight tries since 2011.
When Biles walked off the competition floor following her vault, the Ariake Gymnastics Centre flipped from a beehive to a mortuary.
Most shellshocked were her teammates.
“We were all so stressed, we honestly didn’t know what to do in that moment,” Lee said. “Like, she’s freaking Simone Biles, she carries the team basically.”
That first rotation had put the U.S. in an unfamiliar position. The Amanar vault that Biles intended to perform carries a 5.8 start value; the downgraded version she actually performed was worth just 5.0. Combined with a score of 8.766 for execution — again low for Biles — her total of 13.766 was significantly below what she normally scores on vault.
On the lone event that the Americans had outscored the ROC in qualifying, they now left with a 1.067 deficit.
When Biles returned to the floor and hugged her teammates ahead of the second rotation, there remained some hope that she could come back and pick up where she left off. Those hopes were dashed when she next unstrapped her bar grips and slid on her tracksuit. Word soon circulated that she had withdrawn, with USA Gymnastics eventually confirming it, citing a “medical issue.”
Grace McCallum competes at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
McCallum, up first on bars, looked lost as she mounted the apparatus, but proceeded to hit her routine. Then so did Chiles, who replaced Biles in the lineup. By the time Lee mounted the bars and showed she was going to perform her upgraded routine, the mood had begun to shift.
With a stuck landing, Lee scored a massive 15.400. A glimmer of hope for Team USA.
In a venue built for 12,000 people that now held just a few hundred, the voice of Hoda Kotb, a host of NBC’s “Today” show, rose up from her perch in the corner of the arena.
“I love you,” Kotb called out to the floor.
“I love you too,” Biles responded, her voice clear over the hum of the crowd.
Rotating alongside the ROC, the U.S. moved to the balance beam. After the first two ROC athletes fell, the spirit in the U.S. camp had switched entirely.
Suddenly, Chiles was dancing to a Chinese gymnast’s floor music; then Biles was too. Smiles, pats on the back — the cursory team gestures meant to build each other up now appeared entirely natural.
Once again, it was Chiles who was called upon to fill her friend’s spot in the lineup, this time in the anchor role. The 20-year-old Chiles had been Team USA’s most consistent gymnast of 2021, avoiding any major mistakes all year, until she fell twice on beam on Sunday. Put on the spot in team finals, she was back to her rock-solid best.
Going into the final rotation, floor exercise, the Americans now trailed Russia by just .8.
Genuine smiles replaced the gymnasts’ blank stares, their rising confidence palpable. Even Biles removed the face mask that might have been protecting her from more than COVID-19, her voice rising above the fray to cheer on her teammates’ last-ditch efforts for gold.
Alas, it was not to be. McCallum shuffled out of bounds on one of her tumbling passes, then Chiles landed one of hers sitting down, all but ending Team USA’s hopes for a third straight gold medal.
There was time, though, for one more highlight.
Of all Biles’ routines, it’s her floor exercise that is most electric. In a convenient coincidence, Team USA was closing out the night on floor, with Biles’ customary anchor spot sure to be a defining moment of the competition. Or so they thought.
At least Lee thought so. So when her name wasn’t on the lineup card for floor, the St. Paul, Minnesota, native didn’t bother warming up her routine ahead of the competition. That meant, on short notice, she had just the 30-second pre-rotation warmup period to get ready to fill in for the GOAT.
It turned out that was all she needed. The 18-year-old not only hit her routine but also improved her score by .233 from qualifying.
“It just shows you how amazing and well-trained she is, and how brave and smart she is when she does train,” Biles said.
Ending the emotional night on that highlight, the U.S. gymnasts accepted their medals and began the process of moving forward. Biles, in a continuation of what she’d shown on the floor, was mostly upbeat afterward, except for a brief moment of sadness. Fighting through tears, she said she had wanted to compete in these Olympics for herself.
“But I came in and I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” she said. “So that just hurts my heart, that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
As quickly as she broke down, she regained her composure, returning to the confident woman she’s portrayed in public throughout her historic gymnastics career. At one point, with the suave of someone whose been in the spotlight for going on a decade, Biles discreetly directed her younger teammates how to hold the microphone button down when answering questions in their press conference. Without knowing what had happened two hours earlier, the scene could have been that at any one of the press conferences she’s held after winning one of her national or world championships.
Of course, this was different, though. And soon enough, it was over. Live moves on.
Biles presented as doing OK after the meet, but at a time when mental health, especially among athletes, is becoming a major emphasis, others are already looking out for her. Annie Heffernon, the vice president of the USA Gymnastics women’s program, said a plan was in place for Biles to speak with health professionals on Wednesday morning.
“We’re going to do anything we can to help her,” Heffernon said.
There’s also still Olympic competition. Biles qualified for individual finals in the all-around as well as on all four apparatuses, becoming the first gymnast to do that at the Olympics since 1992. Not making any promises one way or another, the defending Olympic all-around, floor and vault champion said she’ll take it “day by day.”
That, in fact, might be her approach for a while now.
“Gymnastics isn’t everything at the end of the day,” Biles said. “There’s still more to life than gymnastics, so I’m not too, too worried about what happens. I’m just trying to gear up for the next couple days ahead.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.