TOKYO – Simone Biles isn't going home with a fistful of gold medals. A mental block – one brought on by exhaustion or stress or something the American gymnastics star still can't quite grasp – that forced her to pull out of four Olympic finals saw to that.
Yet standing on the podium Tuesday, a bronze medal hanging around her neck and tears in her eyes, the 24-year-old Biles may have claimed something far more valuable: a piece of herself back.
From the “twisties” that have haunted her for a week. From the endless speculation about her state of mind. From the hype machine – one, admittedly, she fed into at times – that set expectations so high coming to Tokyo nothing short of the impossible would have been enough.
It all became too much. A week ago, her internal wires got crossed when she hopped on uneven bars during practice. Suddenly, she couldn't spin. She could barely move. She still doesn't quite know why. And if she's being honest, the wires still aren't reconnected. She's not sure when they will be.
“It was something that was so out of my control,” Biles said. “But the outcome I had, at end of the day, my mental and physical health is better than any medal. So I couldn't be mad.”
Biles and coach Cecile Landi adjusted her routine to ease her anxiety, switching out a dismount that required her to twist for one with two simpler backflips instead, a skill she hadn't done in competition in 12 years, half a lifetime ago. Even with the degree of difficulty lowered, she earned a 14.000, good enough for third behind Chinese teammates Guan Chenchen and Tang Xijing.
Afterward, she chatted with IOC President Thomas Bach then wiped away tears after accepting her seventh Olympic medal, tied with Shannon Miller for the most by an American gymnast. A wave of relief washed over her following a turbulent eight days that shifted the focus from the Tokyo Games to the mental health of the athletes who compete under the rings.
“We're not just entertainment, we're humans,” Biles said. “And there are things going on behind the scenes that we're also trying to juggle with as well, on top of sports.”
Her routine was steady, seemingly immune to the whir of dozens of cameras capturing her every move. She made a small hop after landing her double-pike, then saluted the stands. One last bow perhaps, in a career that includes 32 major international medals and a spot atop her sport.
Two weeks ago, she was a heavy favorite to win four golds. Maybe five. A week ago, her body couldn't do what she'd long trained it to do. Even on Monday, watching others spin their way through their routines made her want to “puke.”
Tuesday night offered justice of sorts. Five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, she was stunned when her bronze on beam was met with a shrug of the shoulders, proof of the double standard she is held to. She earned another one in Japan under circumstances no one could have envisioned.
“This one is definitely sweeter,” she said.
Even if it's the last.
It wasn't the role Biles expected to fill when she arrived.
She did it anyway, repaying those who have spent the last eight years doing the same for her.
Asked if there was anything she would change about her experience in Japan, she shook her head.
“Nothing,” she said. “I would change nothing.”