TOKYO — Simone Biles had left the floor of the Ariake Gymnastics Center. She’d just vastly underperformed on an opening rotation vault and then told her teammates she didn’t think she could mentally continue without hurting the team.
The entire gameplan for the Americans in holding off the Russians securing gold in the women's team competition was suddenly in flux.
Biles, being Biles, was set to compete in all four disciplines that make up the team competition — vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor. Now someone would have to fill in. In the Olympics, three of each country's four athletes participate and each score counts. The Russians, in part due to Biles poor vault, were already holding a commanding lead.
When Biles reemerged, she approached her teammates. She was withdrawing due to an inability to focus due to mental health concerns.
“I’m sorry,” Biles said. “I love you guys, but you’re going to be just fine. You’ve trained your whole lives for this. You’ll be fine.”
Just like that the greatest of all time was relegated to cheerleader status.
And Jordan Chiles, a 20-year-old from Vancouver, Washington, was unexpectedly up … thrown into the bars without any advance notice.
“When I was told I had to put my grips on I was like, ‘OMG,’ ” Chiles said of the wraps that gymnasts use on the uneven bars. “‘Oh, great. This is it. Oh, man.’ ”
Then — OMG — she delivered a crisp, clean routine that judges awarded a 14.166, enough to keep the Americans on pace to win the silver medal they would.
Once Biles scored so low on her vault, the chance at beating the Russians for gold was remote. The silver though, was very much still theres for the taking.
The story of the team competition will always be of Biles choosing to step away in mid-competition. However, it is also about the teammates — Chiles and two Minnesotans, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum — that stepped up in her absence, soaked in her encouragement and coaching, and delivered a second-place finish in the most pressurized and unusual meet of their life.
“We were all so stressed,” Lee said. “She’s ’friggin Simone Biles. She carries the team basically. When we had to step up to the plate and do what we had to do it was very stressful.”
They came together though. Supporting each other. Pushing each other. Believing in each other. And they leaned back on skills honed from years of lonely hours in far off gyms. If Simone Biles believed them, believed they could perform better than her, then who were they to argue?
Chiles would replace Biles on bars and beam. Lee would take over on floor. McCallum would continue to compete in everything. It was all on the fly.
Lee, for example, hadn’t bothered to warm up physically or mentally at all on the floor before the meet.
“I was planning on not doing floor, so I was like, ‘OK?’ ” Lee said later with a laugh. “And I did a few [practice] turns and when I had to go out there and do it I just did what I did.”
She scored a more than respectable 13.666.
She’s talented — she’s a contender for gold in the all-around Thursday night, especially if Biles doesn’t compete (no determination as of yet). Still, the Olympic team finals?
“She is amazing,” Biles said. “She had a 30-second touch [amount of practice time], which just shows you how amazing and well trained she is and how brave and smart she is when she does train.”
Chiles was also solid on beam, delivering a 13.433. It wasn’t what peak Simone Biles would deliver, but it was likely better than the Simone of Tuesday night would have. Biles certainly thought that.
“I’m not in the right headspace,” Biles said. “I’m not going to lose a medal for this country and for these girls. They worked too hard. … I didn't want to go into any of the other events not-believing in myself. So I thought it was better to take a step back and let these other girls do the job.
“And they did.”
It wasn’t enough to catch a very strong Russian team that ran away with the competition by 3.432 points. But the Americans secured silver by holding off Great Britain by a sizable 2.0 margin.
“I’m very proud of us,” Lee said.
“We did this together,” Chiles said.
Afterward, you couldn’t tell any of the Americans they weren’t winners. Three young women who showed up here as Simone Biles' teammates were suddenly the second-best group in the world.
“They were definitely some big shoes [we] had to fill,” Chiles said, laughing.
Most of their thoughts were with their friend. They had seen the stress and pressure build up by living and training with Biles here.
“She is basically all of our idols,” Lee said. “She’s my idol. To see her go out like that is kind of sad because I feel like these Olympic Games are hers.”
“They are all of ours,” Biles said, jumping in.
Here in a back interview area of the gymnastics hall, Biles laughed and put her arm around Lee, the way Lee had earlier when Biles broke down in tears speaking to the media. Any suggestion that anyone let anyone else down on this team just wasn’t reality.
“We’ll just take this medal and cherish it forever,” Biles said. “This medal is all these girls. I did nothing.”
No, the others weren’t going to stand for that. This was Simone’s silver, too.
“We did this for her,” Chiles said. “We didn’t just do this for ourselves, we did it for her.”
“They get a gold-medal from me,” Biles said.
They soon walked out, with a medal none of them anticipated, won in a way none of them could have imagined or will ever forget.
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