That headline would have seemed unbelievable, unthinkable, just 48 hours ago. But after the women’s gymnastics team qualifications on Saturday night, where Simone Biles and her teammates struggled, Biles posted a personal message to her Instagram page. In hindsight, it feels like she was trying to tell us something serious was up.
Team USA’s strategy has been all about Biles, and the pressure on her to be flawless is more than any single human should ever have to endure. The team was selected in a way that placed too much emphasis on her unprecedented skills, because when Biles is perfect, she’s in her own stratosphere. But this flawed philosophy was pushed to the edge in qualifications on Saturday; when Biles had a few small mistakes, the rest of Team USA couldn’t pick up the slack and the Russian Olympic Committee finished first. And then it was pushed to a total breaking point during vault, the first rotation of the women’s team final Tuesday morning.
Biles, the anchor in Team USA’s lineup, did a 1.5 twisting Yurchenko, a downgrade from the Amanar (2.5 twists) vault she had planned. Her teammates all did double twisting Yurchenkos. She looked lost in the air and took a big step forward on the landing and scored a 13.7. Biles never scores in the 13s, and it was the worst U.S. score on vault. Her teammates looked on in shock as she landed awkwardly. She then had a conversation with a team doctor before briefly walking out of the arena.
Biles was out of sight for a few minutes while her coach, Cecile Landi, texted furiously on her Apple watch. When Biles returned, her foot was wrapped and the NBC broadcast broke the news that she had withdrawn from the team final. She hugged her teammates and told them, “You guys will be just fine without me.” Suddenly, it was grown-ass woman time. Would this U.S. team step up in her absence?
The NBC Sports broadcast originally reported that Biles withdrew “because of a mental issue Simone is having.” USAG later put out a statement saying that Biles withdrew “due to a medical issue” and that she would be “assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions.”
Mental health and physical health are closely intertwined, and Biles said after the competition that she had no idea where she was in the air after her vault, that her head wasn’t in it, and she feared she might get hurt or ruin her teammates’ chance at a medal. “It’s very unfortunate this has to happen at this stage…” she said. “It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”
(It sounds like Biles may have had a case of what those in the gymnastics world call the twisties, a term used to describe what happens when a gymnast suddenly loses their ability to know where they are in the air and feel like they can safely land.)
Biles has said recently that she’s benefitted from therapy after coming out publicly as a victim of Larry Nassar. She is the only known member of this team who is a victim of Nassar, the former team doctor who sexually abused hundreds of female athletes. Biles has spoken in depth about the mental stress, anxiety, and anguish that she feels when competing for USAG, the organization that did not protect her—and so many other gymnasts—from Nassar’s abuse.
As Biles watched in a white sweatsuit—her team a full point behind the Russians after the first rotation—Team USA rallied on uneven bars, the second rotation. The Russian Olympic Committee had four of the top six scores on this event in qualifiers, and three of those athletes would be competing bars in finals. The U.S. had to be at their best in order to keep ROC’s lead manageable.
Grace McCallum led off with a solid 13.7. Sunisa Lee, a bar virtuoso, performed her most difficult bars routine perfectly, scoring a 15.4, the highest score of any event of the Olympics so far and her best ever. She’d done an easier version in qualifiers, and upgraded her routine for the moment. Jordan Chiles, who struggled on bars in qualifiers, took Biles’s spot on the rotation and put up a much improved 14.166.
The ROC women still owned uneven bars, each scoring in the high 14s to build their lead to 2.5 points.
Headed into the third rotation, the U.S. would need some major mistakes from Russia to make up the difference. And then, in a dramatic moment that was fit for a sports movie, the first ROC athlete on beam fell off. Vladislava Urazova fell off on an acrobatic series, a one-point deduction. Her toes gripped the side of the beam and it looked like she almost saved it, but bailed at the last second. Urazova scored a 12.633, well below her 14.0 in qualifiers. Team USA’s Grace McCallum had a small balance check but otherwise held it together for a solid routine. 13.4. Next up, ROC’s Angelina Melnikova, who will compete in the all-around Thursday, landed chaotically on an acrobatic series. She fell backwards off the beam. Two consecutive ROC falls! And Team USA’s strongest beam worker (without Biles) was on deck.
Lee, who is also qualified for the all-around, readied herself for a beam performance that would need to be every bit as strong as her masterpiece on uneven bars. She had a small balance check, and then hit her most difficult series, a side aerial to two layout step-outs. 14.133.
Lee’s strong beam routine secured the first narrow lead for the U.S., putting them ahead by just one-tenth. But then ROC’s youngest athlete, 16-year-old Viktoria Listunova, who would not have been eligible for the actual 2020 games, hit a beautiful beam routine and scored a 14.333 to erase the U.S’s lead.
Chiles closed off beam for Team USA with a solid routine, opting for a simpler double pike dismount instead of her full-in, to stay clean and safe. 13.433. After her struggles on beam and bars in qualifiers, USAG left Chiles off the two events for team finals, (just three athletes compete in each event). She had not prepared to make a comeback on these two apparatus, yet still hit each one nearly flawlessly.
On the sideline, Biles motioned through Chiles’s routine as she hit each move, doing it along with her. She jumped up and down for her teammates and cheered. ROC stole back an eight-tenth lead headed into the final rotation, floor, a strength for the American team. The broadcast caught Lee saying, excitedly, “This is our event!”
During the floor rotation in qualifiers, ROC scored 1.171 points higher than Team USA’s score (not counting Biles). The U.S. had to be better than qualifiers, where McCallum stepped out of bounds and Lee landed short on a tumbling pass.
McCallum went first, and stepped out of bounds on her first tumbling pass, a mistake the team could not afford. But she still scored a 13.5, slightly higher than her 13.444 score in qualifying. Then Urazova took the floor for a great routine that had NBC Sports’ Bridget Sloan and John Roethlisberger questioning her surprisingly low 13.366 score, three tenths lower than her qualifying score. That opened the door a little bit for the U.S., but Chiles and Lee would need to be perfect.
Chiles, a talented tumbler, went out of bounds on her first pass. On her second, she fell to the mat on a front double twist, front full. Before Sunday, Chiles had been Team USA’s most consistent athlete. She hadn’t fallen on a tumbling pass all year. Chiles’s low 11.7 score erased the points made up on beam, and put the gold just out of reach, barring a total meltdown from the last two ROC women.
Listunova then hit a perfect floor routine—all lines and pointed toes and stuck tumbling passes—for a 14.166, better than her 14.000 qualifying score. Lee went last for the U.S., and did one of the best floor routines we’ve seen from her all year. She won the world silver medal on floor in 2019, but had been struggling with an ankle injury for the past year and mostly doing only three tumbling passes instead of four in prior competitions in order to save her ankle for the Olympics. She subbed in for Biles on this event and delivered a 13.666 to secure the silver medal, improving off her 13.433 in qualifying.
Melnikova, ROC’s final athlete on the last rotation, needed just a 10.535 score to win the gold. She scored a 13.966, and ran off the floor in tears. Biles was the first Team USA athlete to go over and congratulate the ROC women, who’d won by 3.43 points. 169.528 to the U.S.’s 166.096.
Great Britain rallied to pass Italy for the bronze, their first gymnastics medal since 1928, finishing two points behind the Americans.
Biles’s absence was shocking, and the American women performed extremely well under the circumstances. This silver medal is not a loss, but it should be a valuable lesson for USAG. A team without Biles previously only existed in an unimaginable alternate universe. That it became a reality today should force high performance director Tom Forster and USAG to confront some uncomfortable truths about the way they have built this team and program, and the pressure placed on one athlete who has otherworldly gymnastics skills and all the same emotions and struggles as the rest of us.