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Simone Biles withdrew because she feared she’d cost the US a medal. That’s when her teammates stepped up

The US team stands proudly with their silver medals on the podium.
The US team stands proudly with their silver medals on the podium.LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

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TOKYO — It wasn’t as if Simone Biles had sprained an ankle while landing her vault and hobbled off the mat. She was standing off to the side staring straight ahead, obviously distressed and feeling unable to continue.

So she decided to withdraw from the Olympic women’s team gymnastics final after the first rotation Tuesday and let her teammates take over.

“I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat and work on my mindfulness,” Biles said after her three colleagues regrouped and won the silver behind the Russians. “I didn’t want to risk the team a medal for my screwup, because they worked way too hard for that.”

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So Sunisa Lee huddled with Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum after Biles had departed the arena floor with a team trainer, and they resolved to carry on.

“I said, ‘OK guys, we’ve got this,’ ” Lee said. “ ‘Just do what we normally do. We can go out there and show the world what we came here to do.’ ”

Trailing by more than a point after the vault, the Americans managed to hold their own on the uneven bars — usually their weakest event — and closed the gap to eight-10ths after the balance beam before the Russians pulled away on floor exercise to win the gold by more than 3 points.

“I’m really proud that we were able to step up to the plate and do what we needed to do,” Lee said after the US had made the podium for the eighth consecutive time. “It’s very hard to lose a teammate, especially at the Olympic Games, so I was proud of all of us because we were going through so much. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, but we ended up coming back.”

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Sunisa Lee competes on the uneven bars.
Sunisa Lee competes on the uneven bars.Chang W. Lee/NYT

Unlike the qualifying round, in which a team’s lowest score on each apparatus is dropped, the three-up/three-count format in the final left no margin for error. All three remaining women had to compete in each event, and every score mattered.

“It was definitely something that was unexpected,” said Chiles, who is Biles’s clubmate. “We were kind of emotional when we found out that she wasn’t going to continue.

“We all just had to put our minds in a great position, because at the end of the day, we were out there to show what we needed to show. We went out and did what we did and I’m very proud that we were able to do that.”

Jordan Chiles competes in the floor exercise.
Jordan Chiles competes in the floor exercise.MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

Even if Biles, who’d had a rough qualifying performance, had been able to go the distance, the Americans might not have won the gold. The Russians, who’d improved greatly since the US hammered them by nearly half a dozen points at the 2019 world championships, had outpointed them in qualifying and believed that this could be their night.

“It was the first time that we were competing for gold, not for silver,” said Angelina Melnikova after her exuberant teammates had matched what their male counterparts did Monday, winning gold for the first time since Russia became an independent country.

The gymnasts of the former Soviet Union had owned the women’s side of the sport since they first turned up at the 1952 Games. But after the country broke up three decades ago, the gold medal went to Romania twice, then to China and then to the US, which won the last two Olympic competitions, beating the Russians by more than 8 points in Rio.

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With Biles, the greatest female gymnast in history, leading the way, the Americans were favored to win their third in a row here. But the burden of expectation had weighed heavily on her this summer, and it showed, first on the final day of the trials and then in the qualifying round, when she barely could keep her feet beneath her.

Between Tuesday’s morning workout and the evening final, Biles found the pressure building almost unbearably.

“I was just, like, shaking,” she said. “I’ve just never felt like this going into a competition before.”

Grace McCallum takes her spin on the uneven bars.
Grace McCallum takes her spin on the uneven bars.Laurence Griffiths/Getty

When she botched her vault by leaving out a twist (”I got a little bit lost in the air”) and landed awkwardly, Biles concluded that she likely would cost her team a medal if she continued.

“I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured,” she said, “so I thought that it was best if these girls took over and did the rest of the job, which they absolutely did.”

Biles, wearing her white USA warmups, was alongside them the rest of the way to provide encouragement.

“I knew they’d be OK without me,” she said. “Their heads are always on straight. They have a lot of dedication and courage. I knew they were going to be just fine, so I wasn’t worried. I think they just needed reassurance that they were going to be OK.”

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The Russians, who were in the same rotation as the Americans, obviously noticed that Biles had withdrawn.

“That did not distract us,” said Melnikova.

Would the Russians have won had Biles continued?

“What happened, happened,” said Viktoria Listunova. “There are no ifs now.”

But there certainly are questions about whether Biles will finish out the Games. She is favored in Thursday’s all-around and has qualified for all four of next week’s event finals, the only gymnast to do so.

Biles earned a silver medal with her teammates Tuesday and could end up with a total of six, which would give her 11 at two Games.

“We’re going to take it a day at a time,” she said.