Here's why Simone Biles didn't 'quit' on Team USA
TOKYO — Did Simone Biles “quit” on the rest of the United States women’s gymnastics team Tuesday when, after a disastrously bad vault in the first rotation, she pulled herself out of competition citing a lack of focus caused by mental health concerns?
More specifically, did that decision cost the Americans a chance at winning the gold medal? Was there a negative impact to having Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum handle the final three rotations?
No. She didn't. In fact, you can argue that Biles’ decision actually gave Team USA a chance at the silver medal it eventually captured.
There is no denying that Biles “quit" by some definitions of the word. After all, she decided to stop competing.
However, there is a distinction in sports between just walking away and acknowledging when, for whatever reason, you are either incapable of continuing or your performance is hurting the team — like a player testing out a knee and realizing he can’t go or the pulling of a hockey goalie who is letting in too many shots.
While it would no doubt have been better for all if Biles had determined this prior to the start of competition, she said she felt good heading to the gym before trying to power through. “I have to put my pride aside,” she thought. “I have to do it for the team.”
However, Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, was anything but good in her one vault attempt.
Some will dismiss mental health issues, but gymnastics, in particular, is a sport that requires the mind as much as the body. A lack of focus is as dangerous as a busted-up ankle. For Biles, the inability to concentrate was obvious.
On her vault she attempted to perform a Yurchenko with 2.5 twists, except she was so out of it that she managed only 1.5 twists.
“I did not choose to do a one and a half,” Biles said. “I was trying to do a two and a half but that was not clicking.”
This is somewhat akin to a baseball pitcher thinking he was going to throw a fastball but instead throwing a curveball. “Not clicking” hardly describes it. Her teammates were so stunned that they covered their mouths.
The Yurchenko 1.5 is a basic vault, a 5.0 degree of difficulty that is comically pedestrian at this level. Of the 42 women who competed Tuesday, only one attempted an easier vault. Instantly, Biles knew she couldn’t compete any longer.
Biles received 13.766, a painfully low score in elite gymnastics. In a sport where winning and losing can come down to one-tenth, let alone one one-hundredth of a point, Biles was 1.2 points below what she put up in qualifying. Only three other gymnasts, and none who competed on the top six teams, scored lower.
She came in .54 below the lowest American (McCallum) and 0.7 below the lowest Russian, which was the team the U.S. needed to fend off for gold. Biles’ score staked Russia to a sizable 1.067 lead in a discipline that the Americans should have had the advantage.
Since there are only four rotations, the event was 25 percent done and Russia had the kind of lead that is very, very difficult to overcome unless the opponent starts falling and faulting all over the gym. The Russians would not do that.
Biles, believing she lacked the focus to do much better — and most likely would do even worse — decided to step down as the U.S. was headed to the uneven bars, her weakest event.
“I was like, ‘I am not in the right headspace,’” Biles said. “I am not going to lose a medal for this country and these girls because they’ve worked way too hard to have me go out there and lose a medal.”
But isn’t she Simone Biles, the five-time all-around world champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist?
Sure, but she was also like the Cy Young winner who, for whatever reason, is getting rocked for seven runs in the first inning. Maybe he can rebound, or maybe it just isn’t his day and you go with a reliever and hope to salvage the game.
There is no manager who comes to the pitching mound in gymnastics. Biles had to make the decision herself.
“I didn't want to go into any of the other events not believing in myself,” Biles said. “So I thought it was better to take a step back and let these other girls do the job. And they did.”
So she called on Chiles to fill in for her on bars and beam and Lee to step in on floor. They did pretty well on all three. Chiles scored a 14.166 on bars and a 13.433 on beam. Lee recorded a 13.666 on floor.
The Russians still won easily, running away with the gold by 3.432 points.
If Biles had scored the same in those three events as she did in qualifying when she topped the all-around list — and that would be a remarkable recovery — the U.S. would have added 1.5 points to its total score. That wouldn’t be enough to catch the Russians.
Biles would have had to outperform her qualifying numbers by more than 1.9 points on those three events for her score to impact the outcome. What are the chances a non-confident gymnast is doing that? Virtually nil.
On vault, Biles scored 8.0 below her qualifying number. If that continued over the three rotations, she would have tallied a total of 39.303 points, or 1.962 less than what Chiles and Lee put up.
The U.S. beat Great Britain for silver by just 2.0.
Whether Biles competed or didn’t, the U.S. had essentially no shot at winning gold. The chance of not capturing silver, however, was significant if Simone couldn’t get things right.
Biles’ decision, whether you want to criticize it, was at least partially rooted in strategy for the team. She was the pitcher who pulled himself from the game.
To argue she cost anyone anything — at least post-vault — is ridiculous. She allowed the others to come in and preserve the silver medal. Competitively, she didn’t do anything, or anyone, wrong.
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