As Simone Biles entered the Ariake Gymnastics Centre for the women’s team final at the Tokyo Olympics, the eyes of the sporting world slowly fixated on her. She was, to many, the most dominant athlete in the world and the greatest gymnast in history, undefeated in the all-around, team and floor competitions since 2013. She had pushed the boundaries of the sport even further throughout the summer and after winning four gold medals and a bronze in Rio, it was the start of what could have been the final, crowning moment of her career.
Instead, what unfolded that evening was astonishing. On her first event in the team final, the vault, Biles completely lost track of herself in the air as she attempted her 2.5 twisting Yurchenko vault, one of her most trusted skills. After aborting the skill and somehow avoiding injury, Biles disappeared from the competition floor with her national team staff. When Biles eventually returned, she huddled with her teammates, and then she was done.
After the competition, Biles could have avoided speaking in depth or even walked straight past the journalists in the mixed zone. Instead, numerous reporters departed in awe of what they had heard after she openly explained her mental health struggles. Asked exactly why she decided not to compete, her response was clear: “To focus on my wellbeing,” she said. “There is more to life than just gymnastics.” Later that evening, during the official press conference, her teammates rallied around her and offered their unending support.
Biles had followed in the footsteps of Naomi Osaka, whom she referenced, by placing discussions about mental health in the centre of sports. As with Osaka, another prominent black woman, it immediately led to predictable backlash and scorn across social media. But Biles remained resolute and in the following days her issues became clearer. She had developed the twisties, which occurs when a gymnast’s mind and body are out of sync, rendering them unable to complete certain skills safely. Biles had completely lost her air-awareness during her twisting skills so continuing to compete meant there was an extremely high chance of her falling and injuring herself, possibly seriously.
Each day brought news of Biles withdrawing from another event, but she would still travel to the arena for each final and cheer louder ithan anyone else for her compatriots and rivals from other countries alike. Behind the scenes, Biles was secretly doing everything in her power to return. She located a private gym outside of the Olympic Village and each day she would safely attempt her skills into its foam pits.
At no point in Tokyo did she regain her twisting ability, but Biles decided to remove all of the twists from her balance beam routine and attempt to compete on the very final day of competition. After days of hearing her mental strength questioned, Biles returned to competition and threw down an extremely clean routine to earn a bronze medal despite the diminished difficulty level.
Over the past few years, so much has happened to Biles that led to the events in Tokyo. She has competed at the highest level since 2013, an eternity in women’s gymnastics. Even though she has avoided any lengthy injury layoffs, which are common in gymnastics, so many years of pounding her muscles and joints in training has left a painful mark on her body. After nearing what finally seemed an appropriate finish line for her career, she was distraught when the pandemic pushed the Olympics back by a year.
Meanwhile, Biles continued to compete and cement her greatness while coming to terms with being a very public survivor of sexual abuse by the former US team doctor Larry Nassar, who also abused many of her former teammates. She wrestled with the reality that she could only continue to chase her personal goals in her sport by representing USA Gymnastics, the organisation that had failed to protect her. That she was the last remaining survivor on the team only increased the pressure she felt to continue to compete and hold the governing body to account.
As Biles collected her medal on 3 August and digested her thoughts, she was not yet prepared to fully embrace the narrative that she had ended her week triumphantly. Speaking afterwards, she finished most comments by noting that despite her pride at bouncing back, it “sucked” she had to withdraw from so many events. Beyond the medals and golds, after all of her efforts to make it to Tokyo, it was crushing that she simply could not perform as she wished.
But in the months since she returned home, with time and space, Biles has come to fully understand the impact of her decisions. She cherishes the bronze medal and the fortitude it took to gain it. She has said that she often felt in recent years she was competing for other people, and here she decided for herself. In a sport known for creating a toxic culture of overtraining and competing with injuries, she has shown a generation of new gymnasts the importance of prioritising safety and wellbeing. After spending so many years changing her sport within the confines of the competition floor, she did so again by stepping away from it.