This was going to be the Simone Biles Olympics. She was going to twist her way through the Tokyo air and into our hearts once again, vaulting, tumbling, and spinning her way to gold, leading the most dominant American gymnastics team in recent memory.
This will forever be my Simone Biles Olympics, but for reasons far different from those I originally thought.
Biles’s story line took a drastic turn Tuesday morning, and with it, the landscape of these entire Tokyo Games was altered.
After a disappointing first vault that saw her pull out of her expected twists, moving from 2½ revolutions to one while in mid-air, and then take an enormous step on her landing, Biles withdrew from the team competition. While speculation initially pointed toward a physical injury — Biles had left the floor alongside medical personnel — she said later it was a mental challenge that led to her decision.
“We had a workout this morning, it went OK,” Biles said, “and then just that 5½-hour wait or something, I was just like shaking, could barely nap.
“I’ve just never felt like this going into a competition before, and I tried to go out here and have fun. Warmup in the back went a little better, but then once I came out here, I was like, ‘No, mental’s not there. I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.’ ”
In the end, it matters little, because an injury to the psyche is just as important to address as one to the body. Biles’s willingness to listen to her mental distress on such a public stage, facing what so many athletes would insist to themselves they must push through regardless of how they are feeling, assures that she maintains her GOAT status, not just for what she’s done on the mat, but for what she’s doing off it.
Bravo to her for taking care of herself when she needs it most, even when it is inconvenient for others, even when it leaves the world’s mouths agape in shock, even when it might ultimately alter results on the hallowed Olympic podium.
Biles had given us a glimpse into her feelings before she and her gymnastics teammates took the floor for team finals Tuesday, posting some short but heartfelt thoughts to Instagram. This was after the preliminary rounds, when the first signs of trouble were apparent: some lower-than-expected scores and almost-impossible-to-imagine missteps during her usually dominant vault and floor routines.
She was still the best in the competition, but as someone who has raised the metaphorical bar higher than anyone before her, as someone who essentially competes against herself, particularly on vault, it was not the night she expected.
“It wasn’t an easy day or my best but I got through it. I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” she wrote. “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha!
“The olympics is no joke!” she added.
Nothing about this is funny. But it is enormously important. Anyone paying attention knows how much the sports world is moving toward a deeper understanding of athletes’ mental health. The tilt to kindness is evident everywhere — from fiction, in the optimism and support of a wildly popular television coach like Ted Lasso, to real life, in the form of tennis star Naomi Osaka, who returned to action in Tokyo after taking a mental-health break in the last two tennis majors.
Our gymnasts deserve much of the credit, their collective bravery in taking down serial sexual predator (disguised as a team doctor) Larry Nassar representing such an enormous step in the fight to have the athlete voice heard.
We can never truly know what it cost Biles to speak up the way she has these past years, to continually put herself at the forefront of the demand for justice while at the same time remaining at the top of her game in competition, to bare her most intimate secrets in the hope she might help others deal with their own trauma. But connecting the dots from then to now would seem to make sense.
Simone Biles may be the GOAT, but she’s not a machine. She’s a human being, one who apparently hit a wall Tuesday, who quickly zipped up her sweatsuit and became her teammates’ biggest supporter, cheering them on while they continued where she could not.