One vault, and Simone Biles’ night ended.
The final U.S. gymnast to compete during the first rotation in Tuesday’s Olympic women’s team finals, Biles opened early on an Amanar and seemed to lose where she was in the air. The best vaulter in the world landed low on what became a Yurchenko 1½ (instead of 2½) and took a massive step forward.
Afterward, she sat with the team doctor, surrounded by her teammates, and shook her head. “I’m fine,” she said multiple times before leaving the arena.
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It was a heartbreaking stream of news and the type of information it’s hard to imagine a gymnast and her coaches revealing under USA Gymnastics’ former regime. More than dancing between rotations or showing up to cheer on the men’s team, the fact that Biles chose to place her mental and physical health above all — during the Olympics — and reveal her struggles to the world reminds gymnastics fans that if there is a cultural shift taking place within the sport, the athletes are leading it.
“It’s been a long year, and I think we are too stressed out. We should be out here having fun,” Biles said. “Sometimes that’s not the case.”
From a competitive standpoint, the news of Biles’ withdrawal from the meet was anything but good news for a team already chasing the Russian Olympic Committee, behind by more than a point after the first rotation.
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Biles has said, though, that this time around, she wanted to compete for herself in a way she didn’t in 2016, to push the limits of the sport simply to see what her body is capable of achieving. After Tuesday’s meet, she broke down as she told reporters, “This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself. But I was still doing it for other people. It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
Tuesday in Tokyo, that weight became too much to bear. And Biles responded by doing something gymnasts have been calling upon their sport to do for them for years: place athlete health and well-being ahead of gold medals. “I say put mental health first before your sport,” Biles said of her decision. “I had to do what’s right for me and not jeopardize my health and well-being. That’s why I decided to take a step back and let [my teammates] do their work.”
Biles said she will take Wednesday as “a mental rest day” and then make a decision on the rest of the Games. “We’re going to see about Thursday,” she said in reference to the individual all-around final. Biles qualified first into the all-around, and if she decides to defend her gold medal, she will be joined by Suni Lee. If she withdraws, individual athlete Jade Carey will take her place. “We’re going to take it one day at a time,” Biles said.
At the completion of the meet, as the teary-eyed members of the Russian Olympic Committee team celebrated their victory, Biles led her teammates toward them. “Good job, girls!” she said. She hugged each woman and congratulated her on her win. She lauded her teammates for winning a silver medal.
Instead of labeling this night a disappointment for the American team, perhaps it’s a time to celebrate the ushering in of a new era: one in which gold medals take a backseat to mental health.
D’Arcy Maine contributed to this story.