Simone Biles, in comeback, takes bronze in balance beam

By Juliet Macur

Simone Biles didn’t want her Olympics, and perhaps her career, to end with her in the stands and not on the competition floor.

It couldn’t end that way, after all, considering everything she had sacrificed to make it to the Tokyo Games. She suffered through years of self doubt as a sexual abuse survivor after realizing that Larry Nassar, the longtime United States national team doctor, had molested her. And she had endured a whole extra year of training on aching muscles and painful ankles and dealing with USA Gymnastics, the entity that failed to prevent her abuse.

As the face of her sport and of the U.S. team, Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history, needed to challenge herself one more time. Not for everyone else or their expectations, she said later. For herself.

So on the final day of artistic gymnastics at the Games, after skipping all but one individual final because she was not mentally prepared, she appeared on the balance beam on Tuesday and performed well enough to win the bronze medal. China’s Guan Chenchen won the gold, with a complicated routine performed with grace. Tang Xijing, also of China, won the silver.

“I wasn’t expecting to walk away with the medal,” Biles said. “I was just going out there doing this for me.”

She added, “To have one more opportunity to be at the Olympics meant the world to me.”

Biles, who was expected to dominate here, finishes the Tokyo Games with two medals: a silver in the team final and her bronze on Tuesday. Her beam final ended her roller coaster of an Olympics, which will be remembered for her decision to withdraw from the team final, and for emphasizing the often overlooked importance of mental health in elite sports. Biles said she wouldn’t change anything about these Tokyo Games because it gave her a chance to talk about that issue.

The conversation began last week when Biles, the four-time Olympic champion, performed a watered-down vault during the team final because she had gotten lost in the air and couldn’t tell where the ground was in relation to her body. Later, she said she was struggling with a mental block that caused her to forget how to twist her body as she flew through the air. On Tuesday, she said she feels nauseated even watching other gymnasts twist and can’t comprehend how they do it.

While some people praised Biles for caring for herself, others criticized her for not powering through for her team, which ended up with a silver medal, not the gold it was expected to win. She said that after her vault her “wires just snapped.”

“Things were not connecting and I don’t know what went wrong,” she said Tuesday. “People say it’s like stress related, but I honestly, I could not tell you because I felt fine. I think I’m still trying to process this a little bit.”

One of her coaches, Cecile Landi, said on Tuesday that Biles’ situation was prompted by a combination of things, including nerves and the pressure Biles felt after working so hard for so many years and achieving so much success.

“It just wasn’t the time, you know, the ideal time for her to feel this way,” Landi said. “But I saw in her eyes a look that was beyond anything ever seen before.”

Landi said she expects Biles to go through therapy when she returns home. Landi said she, too, will talk to a therapist because “it has been one hell of a week.”

Sitting out final after final and watching her teammates compete without her was the hardest part of these Games for Biles, who is not used to being on the outside looking in. Going into the Olympics, she hadn’t lost an all-around competition since 2013.

When she visited the Olympic Village after the team final, she said she “felt kind of embarrassed with myself” when athletes kept praising her for valuing her mental health over victories. It was such an overwhelming idea that people would take her side, and that she would be a role model in doing so, that she broke out in tears in an Olympic store there.

The way Biles has been treated on social media has been less positive.

“I got a lot of great comments, like a lot of outpouring support and love, but I also got a lot of bad stuff,” she said. She added: “You guys have no idea what we’re going through.”

Going into the balance beam final, Biles had daily health checks to see if she was healthy enough to return to competition. Some days, she wasn’t up to it, saying: “Not today. I just need to go home.” On one day, while doing the uneven bars, she said she couldn’t breathe. To be cleared to compete on Tuesday, she had to meet twice with a sports psychologist, which she said was helpful because it allowed her to work through the strong emotions she felt after missing most of the Olympics.

But about three days before the balance beam final, Biles told Landi that she was ready to return. Despite also having to process the death of her aunt a few days ago, Biles did her best to tune out everyone and everything.

With the stands in one end of the Ariake Gymnastics Center nearly packed with admirers on Tuesday, including Thomas Bach, the president of International Olympic Committee, Biles waved when her name was announced for the balance beam final, to a roar of cheers. They were not paying spectators, who have been banned from almost every Olympic event because of the coronavirus pandemic, but they were clearly here to see Biles in what might have been her final performance as an elite gymnast.

Biles was back, and the spotlight on her was searing. Even during her warm-up more than two hours before the event, no fewer than 60 professional photographers were focused on her.

Biles, 24, performed back handsprings, flips, split leaps and a double back flip in the pike position for her dismount — an easier alternative to what she had performed in qualifying. There were a few moments of shakiness, but overall it was a solid routine.

When her score popped up on the leaderboard, she shook her head in agreement. It was 14.0, far below her usual score, but the best part of it, according to the look of relief on her face, was that she was done. As she waited for the other gymnasts to complete their routines, she exhaled deeply at least a half dozen times.

“At the end of the day, we’re not just entertainment, we’re humans,” Biles said. “And I think people forget that.”