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Column: Simone Biles pulls out of women’s gymnastics final, lets world know it’s OK to not be OK

A woman stands with her arm around Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics.
U.S. gymnast Simone Biles is consoled after competing on the vault and withdrawing from the team competition.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Her heart was in it, but her head was not. And when Simone Biles lost her bearings midair during a relatively simple vault in the first rotation of the women’s team competition, she knew the risks were too great for her to continue attempting to perform the dazzling skills she had always pulled off with an assurance that disguised their danger.

“I had no idea where I was in the air,” Biles said of her vault, on which she completed only 1½ of the 2½ twists she had planned. “You have to be there 100% or 120% because if you’re not, you could get hurt.”

Biles, 24, was second-guessing herself the past few days, sagging under the pressure of being the GOAT — the greatest of all time. She had lost the joy that gymnastics had brought her since she was an active kid who tumbled and jumped off the couch in her parents’ Texas home.

Some of her enthusiasm was stolen when she was sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar, the former national team doctor who abused hundreds of women, Biles said during a Facebook Watch series. Some of the delight she derived from the sport was crushed by feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders, as she wrote in an Instagram post earlier this week. The stress had become especially intense in Tokyo, where she was expected to dominate the Olympics and repeat as all-around champion while leading the U.S. to a third straight team championship. Strong and powerful though she is, it was too heavy a burden to continue carrying.

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Her doubts came to a head Tuesday, when she walked off the competition floor at Ariake Gymnastics Centre after her vault. She went to the locker room with a member of the team medical staff and returned wearing a warmup suit over her red, white and blue leotard. That she emerged not wearing the hand grips she would need to compete on the next event, the uneven bars, confirmed she was done. She passed the chalk — if not the symbolic torch — to Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum.

“We were all so stressed. She’s freakin’ Simone Biles,” Lee said. “She carried the team basically. When we had to kind of step up to the plate, it was very hard and stressful, but I’m very proud of us because we did that.”

Naomi Osaka, who lit the Olympic cauldron and was a favorite to win gold in her home country at the Tokyo Olympics, lost in the third round to Marketa Vondrousova.

They did the best they could, which always was gutsy and sometimes outstanding, notably in Lee’s eye-popping uneven bars routine. But without Biles’ versatility and unique skills, the Americans couldn’t match the athletes of the Russian Olympic Committee, who won the gold medal with 169.528 points. The U.S. women were second, with 166.096 points, followed by the surprising British team with 164.096 points.

The Russian women, who won silver in the 2016 Rio team competition, have developed some extraordinary talent the past few years. They had outscored the Americans in the qualifying phase Sunday. Even with Biles in the U.S. lineup, Tuesday’s competition figured to be close. “It was the first time that we were competing for gold, not for silver,” said Angelina Melnikova, the only Russian from the 2016 team to return for these Games.

A man in a mask helps Simone Biles off the floor during the Tokyo Olympics.
U.S. gymnast Simone Biles walks off the floor after competing on the vault.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Silver is not the medal the American women are accustomed to wearing. But they weren’t losers by any measure, especially in Biles’ eyes, because her teammates responded with maturity and grace under unpredictably difficult circumstances. “I think tonight, they get a gold medal from me in fighting because they never gave up and they showed the world what they’re capable of,” she said.

Biles previously qualified for the all-around final, which will take place Thursday, as well as the final in each of the four apparatus. She said she hasn’t yet decided if she will compete in those events. A day off Wednesday will go a long way toward helping her decide.

Although she had returned to the competition floor with tape encasing her ankle, she later said she hadn’t gotten hurt. “Injury, no. Just my pride is hurt a little bit,” she said.

Simone Biles, second from left, watches the ROC team celebrate their gold medal.
Simone Biles, second from left, watches the ROC team celebrate their gold medal in the women’s gymnastics team final at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“I felt pretty comfortable coming into the Olympic Games and I don’t really know what happened but just going through each of the days and of the training it just felt a little bit tougher. Going out there tonight could have gone better in my opinion because warmup wasn’t that bad. Still struggling with some things. Wasn’t too bad. Once I got out here it was just like, ‘You know what, I’m going to take a back seat. Let these girls go out there and do their thing,’ and they did it.”

Biles won gold on the vault in the 2016 Rio Games, part of her five-medal haul. She later upgraded her skills to include a vault called a Yurchenko double pike, which no other female gymnast has landed. When she became hesitant before vaults that are less challenging, such as the easier vault that she couldn’t control Tuesday, she knew she had to stop.

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles was scratched from the team competition and the U.S. went on to finish second behind the Russian Olympic Committee team.

“We want to walk out of here, not be dragged out of here on a stretcher or anything,” she said. “After that vault I was, ‘I’m not in the right headspace. I’m not going to lose a medal for this country and these girls because they worked way too hard for me to go out there and have them lose a medal.’

“I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to and 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 I wanted it to be for myself.”

At that point, her voice broke. Chiles, who has become a close friend since she began training at Biles’ family-owned gym in Spring, Texas, rubbed her back to comfort her. “I came in and I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” Biles said, “so it hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”

Biles has been outspoken about having dealt with mental health issues, and she has been inspired by tennis star Naomi Osaka’s acknowledgement of having faced similar doubts. The real victory would be if Biles’ decision to walk away from the team event leads someone else to seek help for their own fears. “I just think mental health [awareness] is more prevalent now in sports and it’s not like we have to put everything aside. We have to focus on ourselves,” she said. “We’re human, too, so we have to protect our mind and our body rather than go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

The world wanted her to perform. She showed greater strength by giving the spotlight to her teammates and letting them shine.


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