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For Simone Biles, 8 years of perfection comes at a cost

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TOKYO — The last person to beat Simone Biles in the all-around competition at a gymnastics meet remembers almost nothing about it.

“Oh, gosh,” Kyla Ross said with a laugh. “It’s been so long.”

Exactly eight years ago, eight years before Biles pulled out of the team final at the Tokyo Olympics to prioritize her mental health, Ross stepped onto a podium in suburban Chicago, a bouquet of flowers nestled in her left arm, a gold medal draped around her neck. And Biles, who three weeks later would win her first of seven national championships, was absent.

Hours earlier, 16-year-old Simone had glanced sheepishly, uncomfortably at the uneven bars, her first apparatus at the 2013 U.S. Classic. She saluted judges, flashing a forced smile and shiny braces, then let nerves retake her expressionless face. She missed her first single-bar release, a Tkatchev, rattling the bar and thudding to the mat. An expectant audience gasped. Martha Karolyi, the no-nonsense national team coordinator, frowned.

Later, on floor, her legs numb, Biles under-rotated and all but landed a tumbling pass on her knees. Her ankle crunched. Aimee Boorman, her coach, met her after that routine, and soon pulled her from the meet.

“Simone Biles on vault is scratching,” a surprised color commentator on a USA Gymnastics webcast said. “Rough competition for her today.”

Boorman had worried beforehand that it might be. “There was definitely something in her eyes,” she remembered all these years later. Something other than the “bubbly personality” that she and so many others saw daily. Instead, there was stress, pressure, fear. Simone finished middle-of-the-pack on all three events she competed, “mortified” by her performance on bars, “furious” at herself for the near-faceplant on floor, a far cry from the gymnast she had been and could be.

Eight years later, of course, Biles is the sport’s undisputed GOAT. She entered the Tokyo Olympics as a favorite for five more medals. She’s won the past 26 national and international all-arounds she’s entered.

But that 27th, her last loss, the one meet she wished she could redo, undoubtedly the worst of her senior career?

At the time, it became a catalyst for this unparalleled eight-year streak.

Now, more than ever, it’s also a reminder that she’s human. Because what she felt that day is connected to what she felt Tuesday night.

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 27: Simone Biles of Team United States reacts during the Women's Team Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Simone Biles reacts during the Women's Team Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

‘Nervous energy running the show’

Once upon a time, the greatest gymnast ever was a 4-foot bundle of pure, unconstrained energy. A talented one, of course. But young Simone’s defining characteristics were eagerness and a radiant smile. “For the most part,” said Boorman, her coach from age 8 through 2016, “she was just a happy little kid in the gym.”

Even as a teen, she’d burst into laughter mid-practice. “Simone always was kind of a light,” said Maggie Nichols, a former U.S. teammate and close friend. “She always made fun out of everything.” She’d joke with and congratulate teammates, and even competitors at international meets.

And Karolyi, the national team coordinator, sometimes didn’t like that.

She once took Biles aside. “What are you doing?” Karolyi scolded.

Elite gymnastics was supposed to be serious. Regimented. National team camps at the infamous Karolyi Ranch were, as 2008 Olympian Chellsie Memmel said, “a very high-tension atmosphere." Gymnasts were supposed to be focused on routines. Stoic.

The intensity, at times, sapped fun, and replaced it with pressure and expectations — which piled onto Simone as she ascended in the sport. “Simone is a ‘pleaser,’ ” Boorman explained, “so she never wants to let anyone down.” And in the days before meets, self-defeating thoughts would loop in her head about doing just that. About the embarrassment of possibly falling with thousands of people watching. About potentially failing her parents, coaches and teammates. Just minutes before the start of a national junior competition in 2011, she was in a bathroom, dabbing at smudged mascara, “crying from sheer nerves and the fear that I was about to humiliate myself,” she wrote in a 2016 memoir.

At her first senior meet two years later, anxiety unsettled her stomach. A fall on beam — on national TV, and in front of Karolyi — had her fighting back tears. “My tendency to overthink my performance ... made me tighten up,” she’d later explain. “And when I’m tight, mistakes are inevitable. I’m not in control; my nervous energy is running the show.”

All of it — the nerves, the overthinking, the waning enjoyment — collided at the 2013 U.S. Classic. Simone admitted 24 hours before it to feeling “a little bit more pressure” and “a little bit higher expectations.” They showed on her face, and in her shallow, forceful exhale, before she leapt onto bars to open the meet. Boorman remembered her being “underprepared for that competition,” but also “definitely off,” mentally. Her miss on bars had her, 20 minutes later, wobbling on beam. After the floor flop, and Boorman’s decision to pull her, she protested, but then relented, and Boorman later recalled: “I think she was relieved.”

The entire meet served as a wakeup call. “I sometimes wonder,” she wrote three years later, “if any of these amazing things would have happened if I hadn’t crashed at the 2013 [U.S.] Classic.”

Simone Biles, center, reacts during the medals ceremony at the U.S. women's national gymnastics championships in Hartford, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013. Biles won the gymnastics title, edging Kyla Ross, left, who came in second. Third-place finisher Brenna Dowell, right, smiles. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
A month after failing to medal at the 2013 U.S. Classic, Simone Biles (center) won gold at the U.S. women's national gymnastics championships, edging Kyla Ross (left), the last person to beat her. (AP)

Battling the fear of failure

Her turnaround began almost immediately, with a one-on-one coaching session at the Karolyi Ranch and a renewed commitment to training; and also with a new type of session. Biles began meeting regularly with Dr. Robert Andrews, a sports psychologist based in Houston. She resisted therapy at first — “there was a negative stereotype, and I thought that people would think I was crazy,” she said in 2014 — but Andrews became her “saving grace.”

Sitting in Andrews’ office, they talked about the pressure Biles felt, and the sources of it, most of which were external. Then Andrews changed the subject: What did Simone love to do? “Have fun,” she told him. And was she having fun at the U.S. Classic? “No,” she said. “I was worrying about what everyone else was thinking about me, and I was trying to live up to everyone’s expectations.”

Together with coaches, they worked on turning her focus inward. Andrews, over multiple sessions, got to know the bubbly personality, and recognized that Simone was suppressing it during gymnastics. “You’ve got to show that on the floor,” he told her. “Let the crowd know how much you enjoy what you’re doing.

“Go out there and have fun.”

“That,” Biles wrote three years later, “was my breakthrough, the final piece of the puzzle, a moment of clarity.”

“When I’m smiling and having fun,” she’d realized by 2014, “I perform the best.”

The single-mindedness, she realized, was counterproductive. The giggles and the socializing were “actually good for me,” she wrote. “If I was focused too hard on my upcoming routine, I’d start to get all nervous and tense.” She began lightening up in the gym, still working tirelessly, but actively trying to take the sport less seriously. Karolyi eventually learned to let Simone be Simone. Fears gradually ebbed.

And the wins started multiplying. First at 2013 nationals. First at 2013 worlds. First at classics, nationals and worlds a year later. First at all five meets a year after that. Difficulty scores, and therefore margins of victory, increased. Biles raised her all-around average from 59.0 in 2013 to 60.8 in 2014 and 61.8 in 2015.

The pressure and doubt, however, still nagged her. Journalists once told her they’d written stories about her winning before competitions had even started. Biles’ primary emotion after starring at her third straight world championships in 2015 wasn’t happiness, but rather relief — that she hadn’t let anybody down.

In 2016, with the Olympics approaching, fears of failure again reappeared, and one day sent her to her bedroom bawling. Her chest heaved. She struggled for breath. Stress, and panic, and pundits projecting five gold medals had overwhelmed her.

Her father comforted her, then called up Andrews and brought her the phone.

Biles cried, then enunciated her worry: that she wouldn’t be ready for Rio, couldn’t meet ever-rising expectations. Andrews calmed her, and told her to focus on what she could control. She hung up a while later feeling better.

She woke up the next morning and trained. She flew to Rio the next month and won five medals.

Team USA gymnastics over the years slideshow embed
Team USA gymnastics over the years slideshow embed

'The weight of the world'

Five years later, Biles still distrusts her greatness. “She’s almost unstoppable; what stops her is her mental,” co-coach Cecile Landi recently said. “She sometimes does not believe she can do a skill.” 

After a substandard start on the final night of Olympic trials last month, “I kinda got in my head,” Biles said. “Started doubting myself.”

How can Simone Biles doubt herself? a reporter asked.

Biles said the doubts come with fatigue, and mostly from still-inescapable expectations.

For much of the buildup to these Games, the source of those expectations was different. Biles was more joyful in the spotlight, because she was no longer primarily focused on pleasing others.

“In 2016 ... I really was terrified of what everybody else was gonna think,” she said in a recent Facebook docuseries. “Now, going into this year, this time is really for me. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody, and that feels nice.”

But then she arrived in Tokyo, and everything came flooding back. The pressure. The worries. Her voice began breaking as she thought about this Tuesday night, hours after she pulled out of the team final. “I wanted it to be for myself,” she said of these Olympics. “I came here, and I felt like I was still doing it for other people.”

She’d reverted to the “pleaser.”

And that hurt her heart. Her love for gymnastics, over the past week, had “kind of been taken away.” Expectations had replaced it. Training “felt a little bit tougher“ with every passing day. The “weight of the world” poured onto her shoulders, again, as it had years ago, and she tried to shrug it off, but, “Yeah,” Biles said Tuesday. “That sh-t's heavy."