‘I was just doing this for me’ – Simone Biles returns to action to claim bronze

Top American gymnast had to to withdraw from five of the six finals she had targeted

After withdrawing from several events, American gymnast Simone Biles made a fearless return to competition, winning a bronze medal on the balance beam - with Guan Chenchen taking the gold. Video: Reuters

 

Simone Biles has taken the long walk to the medal podium so many times in her career that there is not a chance that she could count all of them, but as she took it this time while dressed in her white US tracksuit and mask, it is hard to think of a medal that felt more just.

She was one of the very biggest stars of the Tokyo Games, by far the best gymnast in the world, only to find that a mental block left her physically incapable of doing the skills that had put her on a pedestal for so long.

As the world speculated about her, she returned to the stadium each day and she was the loudest person in the arena, cheering on both her teammates and opponents to the biggest successes of their life without a hint of bitterness.

And then, unexpectedly, she returned.

Biles closed off the women’s gymnastics events in Tokyo with one of the most heartening moments of the games as she surprised herself by winning an excellent bronze medal on the balance beam with a score of 14.000.

Biles has been unable to twist over the past week and so she simply took out the only twist in her routine, swapping her full-twisting double back dismount for a simple double pike.

Biles was beaten to the gold and silver medals by two Chinese gymnasts; the beam maestro, Guan Chenchen, who scored 14.633, and Tang Xijing who finished in silver medal position with 14.233.

It did not matter. After all that she had been through, Biles stepped up and delivered an excellent routine, and after finishing it she walked away with a wide smile. The arena, filled only with her peers, country delegations and officials, erupted in her name.

A week ago, when she was trying to explain why she could not compete in the team final, Biles said that she felt that was competing for other people. She ended her time in Tokyo certain that, in her final routine, she had competed for herself.

“To be cleared to do beam, which I didn’t think I was going to be, just meant the world to be back out there,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to walk away with a medal. I was just doing this for me and what happens happens.”

Biles spoke in detail about what this unprecedented week has been like behind the scenes. Even though the majority of people have been supportive of her, including the athletes in the Olympic village who reduced her to tears with their kind words, she had to put Twitter to the last screen of her phone menu in order to avoid all the hurtful things being said about her.

Green light

Each day a doctor from the International Gymnastics Federation would ask her a series of questions in order to clear her to compete, and she was only given the green light for the beam final. She had two sessions with Team USA sports psychologists who had helped her accept that she could not compete, which was not easy.

While everyone has an opinion on what prompted Biles to withdraw from the event, from pressure to speculation about her, it is clear that Biles just does not know.

She says that the issues arose after USA’s imperfect qualifying performances, in which they were beaten by Russia. Although the gymnasts themselves were fine, there was a massive rush to rectify their issues in training. As she attempted to tumble on the floor, “that’s when the wires just snapped. Things were not connecting and I don’t know what went wrong. People say it’s stress related but I could not tell you because I felt fine”.

Not competing has been difficult enough, but she knew it was out of the question. Coming to terms with her diminished capabilities was even harder: “My problem was why my body and my mind weren’t in sync. That’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around. What happened? Was I overtired? Where did the wires not connect? That’s what was really hard because it’s like, I trained my whole life, I was physically ready, I was fine and then this happens and it’s something that was so out of my control.”

As Biles spoke in the mixed zone and she was peppered with questions about how much this bronze medal meant to her, what was clear is that this was not quite a triumphant departure.

Her decision not to compete was courageous and extremely important for pushing the subject of mental health in sports forward. Then she managed to end her time in Tokyo on a positive note and with a smile, demonstrating her character by returning and her skill by taking a medal with a downgraded routine.

But ultimately she still had to withdraw from five of the six finals she had spent four years training to compete in. The issues have by no means disappeared. She still wants to vomit every single time she sees a gymnast attempt a double-twisting double somersault “because I cannot fathom how they’re doing it. I don’t understand”.

Just over a week ago, that was the least complicated skill in her floor routine. When she returns home, she will have to process all that has happened. She has all of that to wrap her head around before she even considers her future in the sport.

What is clear, however, is that this experience has taught her numerous important truths about herself and life in general that will stick with her no matter what she does next: “At the end of the day,” she said. “My mental and physical health is better than any medal.”

– Guardian

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