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RIO DE JANEIRO — It was, by Simone Biles standards, a simple front flip, not close to the most difficult elements of her audacious beam routine. Yet she lost balance as she landed it, stumbled her feet and needed to grab the beam to stabilize herself.
And in the cruel, perfection-chasing world of gymnastics, that was that for Biles’ quest to become the first gymnast ever to capture five gold medals in a single Olympics. Not even her high degree of difficulty could save her.
The next competitor up, Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands, took advantage and, perhaps motivated by the unexpected opportunity in front of her, delivered a brilliant routine for a score of 15.466 to win gold in the balance beam final.
Wevers held off a charge later by American Laurie Hernandez, who scored 15.333 and took silver. Biles’ score of 14.733 was enough for bronze.
“Well, she is human,” said Amiee Boorman, Biles’ coach.
“I’m still proud of it,” Biles said.
So was Hernandez, who was satisfied with her routine even if it fell just short of gold. The 16-year-old native of New Jersey performed to her standards and barely missed out. Wevers proved just too strong.
“Judging is judging,” said national team coordinator Marta Karolyi.
Hernandez didn’t appear too disappointed. This was her first major international competition and to come away with two medals, including a gold in the team competition where she competed in three disciplines, was an unquestioned success. Hernandez, who recently turned professional, will continue competing and, barring injury, should make a run at returning to Tokyo’s Olympics in 2020.
Hernandez said winning a medal on beam was particularly satisfying because for a long time it was her least favorite event.
“When I was younger I remember competing and I couldn’t even stand on the beam I was so nervous,” Hernandez said. “It’s kind of nice.”
Her team launched an inquiry into the scoring, arguing that she deserved an extra 0.1 points on her difficulty rating, but it was denied. It wouldn’t have been enough to change the outcome anyway.
“The medal would have been the same,” said Maggie Haney, Hernandez’s coach.
Biles was seeking to become the first gymnast to win five gold medals at a single Olympics. She had already earned gold in team, all around and vault.
She can still tie the record of four held by Vera Caslavska of then-Czechoslovakia (1968) and Agnes Keleti of Hungary (1956) by winning the floor exercise final on Tuesday. She is the favorite, having posted the highest scores in qualifying and during both the team and all-around competitions.
Biles’ stumble reminds of the physical and mental grind of the Olympic gymnastics meet, with podium training, qualifying and five days of competition spread out over 12 days. Unlike some competitors, she competed in all-around and on all four apparatus in the team event. It’s a heavy workload.
To be on point each time is a grind, perhaps particularly when the hoopla of being Simone Biles overtakes you. Remaining focused and in a bubble closed off from outside distractions is a challenge – during Sunday’s session with the media she was already fielding questions about appearing on “Dancing with the Stars.”
“There’s only one day left,” Biles said, brushing off suggestions she might be getting tired.
The 19-year-old from Spring, Texas, took the mistake well, rallying herself to a terrific performance the rest of the way. Although clearly disappointed, she smiled and waved to the crowd which cheered for her. And she enthusiastically hugged and cheered for Hernandez when she competed later and scored higher.
“To win any medal is amazing,” Biles said.
Two Americans still wound up on the medal podium, but for the first time Simone Biles has competed at these Olympics, a national anthem other than the United States was played for the champion.