TOKYO — This wasn’t for a medal or any specific score. It wasn’t about trying to prove anyone right — or wrong — or deliver on other people’s sky-high expectations. It wasn’t to please sponsors or NBC or the International Olympic Committee or anybody else.
For the first time in a long while, Simone Biles gave herself permission to do gymnastics for the same reason she started the sport those many years ago: Because she wanted to.
A week after withdrawing from the team competition with a case of “the twisties” that put both her mental and physical health in danger, Biles returned for the last event final, balance beam.
Just as she did four years ago, she left with a bronze medal. This one, however, was so much sweeter and, unlike the one from Rio, won’t ever be overlooked.
“To be cleared for beam meant a lot,” Biles said Tuesday night, her voice thickening with emotion.
Biles still hasn’t processed everything that has happened in the last week. She knows she was, and still is, physically unable to do the twisting skills that are normally second nature to her. It’s the reason she was OK with missing the finals for vault, floor exercise and uneven bars.
Or OK as one can be about missing events you were supposed to do at an Olympic Games.
But why this all happened? She still doesn’t know. One day she was fine and the next she wasn’t, unsure of where she was in the air or whether she would land on her feet or her head or somewhere in between.
The physical danger was terrifying. Even more unnerving was that, as an athlete, she is used to bending her body to her will and now she simply could not.
“I think that was honestly the hardest part,” Biles said. “My problem was why my body and my mind weren’t in sync. That’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around. What happened? Was I overtired? Where did the wires not connect?
“That was really hard. I trained my whole life, I was physically ready, I was fine. And then this happens,” Biles said. “It was something that was so out of my control. But the outcome I had, at the end of the day, my mental and physical health is better than any medal.”
Biles came to Tokyo as the biggest star of these Games, projected to win what would be a record five gold medals. She is leaving with a silver medal from the team competition as well as that bronze on beam, giving her seven Olympic medals in all.
In years past, her performance might have been considered a disappointment, an athlete who couldn’t live up to her hype. But what Biles did in shining a spotlight on mental health, and the overwhelming pressure that elite athletes face, is far bigger, and will have a far greater impact, than any athletic accomplishment at these Olympics.
Athletes have long suppressed their emotions, not wanting anything to get in the way of their goals. And society is happy to let them, wanting only to be entertained and not caring that there’s an actual human behind these superhuman feats.
No one knew, for example, that Biles’ aunt had died suddenly over the weekend, adding one more layer to the stress she was already feeling.
“I’m definitely feeling the love and support, and I didn’t feel like that was going to happen,” Biles said. “I kind of felt embarrassed with myself. Especially when we went to the (Olympic) Village and everybody (was) coming up to me and saying how much I meant and how much I’d done for them.
“I was crying in the Olympic store because I just wasn’t expecting that.”
Her message, that it’s OK not to be OK, even when the world is watching, is a powerful one. And one that is long overdue.
While she appreciates anything that furthers that conversation she is, still, an athlete. Even when she knew she couldn’t, even when doctors wouldn’t allow it, she wanted to compete.
Trying to do the vault, floor or bars finals was never in consideration because it would require her to twist and even watching other gymnasts makes her “want to puke.” But the only skill on beam that requires Biles to do any twisting was her dismount.
If she and her coaches tweaked that, and doctors would clear her, she could leave these Olympics on her terms.
Biles looked nervous as she and the other beam finalists were introduced, taking several deep breaths. As she waited on the podium for the score of Tang Xijing, the gymnast who’d gone before her, coach Cecile Landi stood close by, offering last words of encouragement.
After a final hug, Landi walked down the steps, and it was just Biles and a beam that is 4-inches wide and 4 feet off the floor.
“I said, ‘Just go out there, have fun. And whatever happens, happens. One step at a time, go slow, take your time on the beam and make sure you open up on that dismount,’” Landi recalled.
The stands behind the balance beam were filled, making this feel as close to a normal event as there’s been this Olympics. Even International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach was on hand. But if the focus on her was unnerving, Biles didn’t show it.
With the click of camera shutters punctuating her every move, she flipped and turned with confidence, looking as steady as if she was performing on a railroad tie. She took a small hop backward on her dismount, now a double pike, but pumped her fists and beamed as she trotted off the podium.
“I was excited to compete at the Olympic Games because that’s what I planned on coming in, and to have everything just change and be a whirlwind was crazy,” Biles said.
When she saw her score, a 14.0, she nodded. With five gymnasts still to go, she had no idea whether that would hold up for a medal.
Nor did she really care. She had wanted to compete and she did, and that was all she needed.
“There’s a lot of relief. Obviously there’s — I don’t know. I don’t really know how I’m feeling,” Biles said. “Right now, I just feel I have to go home and work on myself and be OK with what’s happened.”
So much of it was out of Biles’ control. For one night, at least, she was able to do what she wanted and do it for herself.
And that might be the greatest victory of all.
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