By Arnie Leshin
Mentally, Simone Biles realized she had lost her way.
The world’s number one gymnastics superstar was expected to bring home gold medals and to fulfill the obligations of a global celebrity. At the same time, the weight of her past success loomed over her.
Except that the fans expected her to be spectacular and perfect, even here at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in a pandemic and without spectators.
No go for her, which is why the favored United States had to settle for second place behind an improved Russian women’s squad.
On Tuesday she said she was feeling far from perfect, and she began “fighting all of those demons” and couldn’t hold them back. In this, perhaps her final Olympics after having won four gold medals at the 2016 Games in Rio, she wondered why she was even here.
And when she twisted fewer times than she had planned in the vault, she knew she wasn’t herself, having lost her uncanny sense of where her body is in the air and failing to complete the kind of daring skill she is known for.
Then the most decorated gymnast in the world walked off the mat and left the competition, saying she was not mentally prepared to continue, and in her absence, the Russian team surged to the gold medal and left the runner-up spot to the red, white and blue.
Her withdrawal was a stunning turnabout for the Americans, who had won team gold at every world championship and Olympics since 2010. Biles later said that she had hoped to compete for herself, but “felt like I was still doing it for other people, and that it just, like, hurts my heart, because doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
Three of the four Americans — Biles, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum — were part of the squad that rolled to victory in Stuttgart in October of 2019. Then the team topped qualifying with less than five points, a massive margin in a sport where more tenths can often be the difference between the gold and going home empty-handed.
In Japan, the loss of Biles closed the gap considerably, ahemaybe completely. Competing in the sub-division ahead of the US, Russia put on a dazzling of artistry and execution, its 172.629 total was its highest in since the Code of Points was updated in 2017.
It’s not that the USA was bad. It wasn’t. It just wasn’t great. No Biles and no gold medals. And why else did the Russians finish ahead of the Americans? Execution. Where the red, white and blue was messy, the Russians were
precise. It made all the difference.
And the mystery of Biles’ mental mishap will decide her present and future.