How Simone Biles saved herself — and her teammates — at the Olympics

TOKYO — Simone Biles had already given up on the idea of opening the Olympic team competition with a Yurchenko double pike, the kind of eye-popping, high-scoring, highlight-reel entrance that intimidates opponents, entices sponsors and wins golds.

She didn’t have it. Not tonight. She knew that much. She was in her head. Deep, she said.

“Demons,” she calls them. They seep in and make her question everything. They take the joy of what she loves more than anything, that she’d loved since she was a bouncy 3-year-old jumping off her living room couch, and make them about something else.

Doubt. Fear. Insecurities. Pressure. Failure.

Therapy and medicine, she said, usually keep the demons at bay. Yet here inside the Ariake Gymnastics Centre, here in the middle of an Olympics where she was the main attraction, here at the start of the team finals, they were back, stronger than ever.

So the vaunted double pike was out. She would go with the easier Yurchenko with 2.5 twists. It was a tough vault, but one that Simone Biles, being a five-time world champion and reigning Olympic all-around champion and greatest of all time, could practically do in her sleep.

The demons, she figured, couldn’t touch that one. She was just trying to brush them aside and win this competition.

“I have to put my pride aside,” she thought. “I have to do it for the team.”

By the time she hit the vault and pushed herself into the air, she realized the folly in such a thought. She found herself twisting and flipping and having absolutely no idea what was happening.

“I didn’t know where I was in the air,” she said.

Two-and-a-half twists never happened. She wound up doing one and a half, somehow repositioning herself on the fly and landing without injuring herself. The athletic talent such an act requires is breathtaking. She needed a stumble and a huge step to make it, but she made it.

Still … a Yurchenko 1.5?

“I wasn’t trying to do a Yurchenko 1.5,” she said. “I was trying to do a Yurchenko 2.5.”

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Simone Biles of Team US reacts during the Women's Team Final of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo, Japan on July 27, 2021. (Photo by Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Simone Biles of Team US reacts during the Women's Team Final of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo, Japan on July 27, 2021. (Photo by Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

At the side of the vault her teammates covered their mouths in shock. That wasn’t a Simone Biles vault. It was easily her worst attempt in a decade, at least. What was it? What was happening?

Before the judges even tallied a shockingly low 13.766 — a full 1.2 below her qualifying mark, Biles knew she was done. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t perform. She could injure herself, sure, but she, the Great Simone Biles, was suddenly useless as a gymnast.

Her score was dragging down the team. It was .540 below any of her teammates. It was 0.700 below any of the Russians. She was the worst one, by a lot.

It was so low it staked the Russians to a 1.067 lead — a huge number in gymnastics. It’s the kind of gap the Americans would struggle to overcome even if they had Simone Biles at her very best.

“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.”

She nearly broke into tears, consulted a USA Gymnastics doctor, briefly left the arena floor and then came back, pulled the wraps off her wrists she was set to use on the uneven bars and told her teammates to go win a medal.

Simone Biles pulled herself out of competition.

“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.”

-TOKYO,JAPAN July 26, 2021: USAs Simone Biles and ROCs Angelina Melnikova embrace after the womens team final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.  (Wally Skalij /Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
USA's Simone Biles and ROC's Angelina Melnikova embrace after the women's team final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Wally Skalij /Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Indeed, Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum did do the job. Initially stunned, then saddened for their friend, they shook it off to go win a silver medal.

“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 never could close much of that initial gap, but with Biles cheering them on, they made the Russians sweat it out until the final rotation.

And they took home silver.

They were all standing together now, in a back hallway of this gymnastics hall, trying to make sense of a night none of them saw coming, a night when Simone would go from team leader to liability and decide to focus on her mental health, not her medal count.

Biles was still trying to process it all herself. She was clear: She wasn’t physically injured.

“Injury? No,” she said with a laugh. “Just my pride a little bit.”

She was pleased with her decision to back out. She loved serving as a de facto coach. She, the owner of four golds, took immense pride in the silver around her neck because her friends won it for her.

She tried to describe what she had gone through. She wanted these Olympics to be for her and her teammates, not for her sponsors, not for USA Gymnastics, not for the U.S. Olympic Committee, not for the expectations of the world.

“I felt pretty comfortable coming into the Olympic Games and then I don't know what happened,” she said. “ ... You wind up in a stressful situation and you don’t know how to handle all those emotions.”

Suddenly, it all crumbled and there was nothing she could do to stop the slide. Even if it didn’t make sense, even as everyone told her otherwise, she couldn’t shake her feelings, couldn’t beat back the demons.

“These Olympic Games, I wanted it to be about myself,” Biles said, her voice suddenly catching and tears rolling out of her eyes. “And I came in and I felt I was still doing it for other people, and it hurts my heart that doing what I love has been taken away from me to please other people.”

Her teammates put arms on her shoulders. They tried to prop her up, but here she was, one of the most famous and popular and celebrated people in the world, standing raw and vulnerable and honest.

She knows plenty of people won’t understand, but that’s what got her here in the first place.

“You are still too concerned about what everyone else is going to say, the internet,” Biles said.

So she decided she would have to be more than a gymnast, even here during the biggest gymnastics meet of them all. She had to take care of herself.

She didn’t quit on her team. She quit, she said, and saved the team.

“What was best for me was what was best for the team,” she said.

She was set to talk to professionals on Wednesday morning. After that, a day off from training that she seemed to covet. Will she be back Thursday for the all-around competition? What about the four individual finals she qualified to be in? Will she be back, ever?

She couldn’t say, for sure. At that moment, it wasn’t important.

First things first.

“Fighting,” Simone Biles said, “all those demons.”

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