After a surreal Olympics that saw the world’s most medaled gymnast on the sidelines for most of the women’s artistic gymnastics finals, Simone Biles returned to competition on Tuesday, taking bronze for her performance on the balance beam.
While bronze would have been seen as a disappointment two weeks ago—many predicted Biles would make Olympic history by winning gold in all six categories in which she was slated to compete—now, in light of her recent mental health struggles, the fact that she competed at all is a victory.
Biles had been open with the public about her nerves going into the Tokyo Games, as we’ve previously noted, which had been delayed a year by the pandemic, and were being held sans the enormous audiences that usually show up to cheer, in an effort to prevent the Games from becoming a super-spreader event. Tokyo has also required a plethora of Covid-19 protocols to allow athletes to even be there, which, Biles has said, may have taken their toll after more than a year of dealing with the pandemic back in Houston.
The fact that something was very off became abruptly apparent last week when Biles started making mistakes during the first rotation of the team competition. After bailing out of the high-scoring Amanar move and failing to stick the landing, Biles appeared back on the floor in her track suit as officials announced that she had withdrawn from the team finals entirely due to mental health concerns. “I’ve never felt like this going into a competition before,” she explained shortly after the event. “I tried to go out, have fun and after warming up in the back I felt a little better, but once I came out here, I felt, no, the mental is not there. I need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.”
Biles eventually explained that she had “the twisties,” an issue where a gymnast loses track of where her body is while flying through the air, and is only certain of where the ground is when some part of her makes contact with it. If the gymnast is lucky, the training kicks in and she’ll still land safely, as Biles did during that vault, but the chance of injury is huge.
Initially, it seemed like Biles would be back in time to compete in the all-around (where fellow teammate Suni Lee took gold), the uneven bars (Lee took bronze), the vault (MyKayla Skinner won silver), or floor exercises (Jade Carey won gold) but as each event drew close she ultimately opted to withdraw.
However, yesterday she was finally cleared to compete in the beam finals, the last event in women’s artistic gymnastics.
As she stood by the beam waiting to begin, Biles’ face was blank, with only a jiggling leg hinting that she might be at all nervous or aware of the scrutiny this routine was about to be under. Would she be able to do it, or had the world just unknowingly witnessed the unceremonious end of her stunning career seven days ago?
Then her turn was up. She flashed a smile to the judges before turning to the beam and beginning her routine.
It went off without hitch, even if the euphoric energy that usually accompanies her athletic feats was tamped down. She kept it simple, at least for someone at her remarkable skill level. With clean, precise execution, Biles made flipping through the air and landing on a beam seem almost easy, sailing through each section of her routine and into the dismount and the near certainty of a medal. Once she’d stuck the landing, relief flooded her face while her coach and teammates clustered around her cheering.
In the end, two members of the Chinese team, Guan Chenchen and Tang Xijing, executed even more remarkable performances and outscored Biles, winning gold and silver respectively. But the true victory, of course, was the fact that Biles was able to get back out there at all.
Now, the big question is what happens next? Biles could conceivably call it a day and retire from the sport in the wake of Tokyo—but that’s a rather sad way to leave a sport she has dominated since arriving on the scene in 2013. And, after all, the Paris Olympics are just three years away.