TOKYO — Her heart was in it, but her head was not. And when Simone Biles lost her bearings midair during a relatively simple vault in the first rotation of the women’s team competition, she knew the risks were too great for her to continue attempting to perform the dazzling skills she had always pulled off with an assurance that disguised their danger. “I had no idea where I was in the air,” Biles said of her vault, on which she completed only 1½ of the 2½ twists she had planned. “You have to be there 100% or 120% because if you’re not, you could get hurt.”
Biles, 24, was second-guessing herself the past few days, sagging under the pressure of being the GOAT — the greatest of all time. She had lost the joy that gymnastics had brought her since she was an active kid who tumbled and jumped off the couch in her parents’ Texas home.
Some of her enthusiasm was stolen when she was sexually assaulted by Larry Nassar, the former national team doctor who abused hundreds of women, Biles said during a Facebook Watch series. Some of the delight she derived from the sport was crushed by feeling the weight of the world on her shoulders, as she wrote in an Instagram post earlier this week. The stress had become especially intense in Tokyo, where she was expected to dominate the Olympics and repeat as all-around champion while leading the U.S. to a third straight team championship. Strong and powerful though she is, it was too heavy a burden to continue carrying.Her doubts came to a head Tuesday, when she walked off the competition floor at Ariake Gymnastics Centre after her vault. She went to the locker room with a member of the team medical staff and returned wearing a warmup suit over her red, white and blue leotard. That she emerged not wearing the hand grips she would need to compete on the next event, the uneven bars, confirmed she was done. She passed the chalk — if not the symbolic torch — to Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum.
“We were all so stressed. She’s freakin’ Simone Biles,” Lee said. “She carried the team basically. When we had to kind of step up to the plate, it was very hard and stressful, but I’m very proud of us because we did that.” They did the best they could, which always was gutsy and sometimes outstanding, notably in Lee’s eye-popping uneven bars routine. But without Biles’ versatility and unique skills, the Americans couldn’t match the athletes of the Russian Olympic Committee, who won the gold medal with 169.528 points. The U.S. women were second, with 166.096 points, followed by the surprising British team with 164.096 points.
The Russian women, who won silver in the 2016 Rio team competition, have developed some extraordinary talent the past few years. They had outscored the Americans in the qualifying phase Sunday. Even with Biles in the U.S. lineup, Tuesday’s competition figured to be close. “It was the first time that we were competing for gold, not for silver,” said Angelina Melnikova, the only Russian from the 2016 team to return for these Games.
A man in a mask helps Simone Biles off the floor during the Tokyo Olympics.