While you were sleeping, Simone Biles returned to the competition floor for the most nerve-wracking beam routine of all-time.
Over the last week, gymnastics fans got used to seeing Biles become one herself. Since withdrawing from the team all-around final due to a case of the twisties, Biles has spent her time in Tokyo standing up for her teammates and cheering loudly as they competed in that final, the all-around and the three additional events that Biles pulled herself from.
When she wasn’t sitting in the stands, Biles was training furiously, trying to get over the twisties, which she said on Instagram was affecting the twisting moves on all four of her events. Biles wrote on Instagram that the twisties “randomly started happening after prelims competition the VERY next morning” and that every time she’d gotten lost in the air in the past, it only happened on floor or vault. But this time, the twisties had spread to beam and bars, too. “Which sucks… really bad.” she wrote.
Biles told reporters in Tokyo that when she woke up the day after qualifying, she couldn’t even get her toes on the bar and while she was tumbling on floor, she felt the confusion setting in. “The wires just snapped,” she said. “Things were not connecting, and I don’t know what went wrong.”
She said that watching other gymnasts twist makes her want to puke. “I just cannot fathom how they’re doing it.”
Beam was the last scheduled women’s final, and also Biles’s routine that featured the least amount of twists. She would have to rework her dismount, which she switches between her signature move, the Biles, (a double-twisting double back flip) and a full-twisting double back flip, and replace it with a double pike, a simpler non-twisting dismount that she said she hadn’t done since she was 12 years old.
Even with the twisties, Biles’s gymnastic genius was still at work. In just a few days time, she added back a skill she hadn’t competed in years, all while knowing this routine would be her last shot in these Olympics. The clock was ticking to get it down in time for Tuesday’s final.
Just seven days after her scariest landing in competition, Biles got back on the podium, wiggling her knees in anticipation while she waited in front of the beam.
Aside from the dismount, she kept her usual routine. With the pike dismount, her difficulty score downgraded to a 6.1 instead of the 6.5 she competed in qualifiers with the full-twisting double back dismount. But beam is unpredictable, and that D score would be enough to challenge for a medal, though the hardware felt secondary to the importance of Biles just getting back up there at all.
Biles stuck her triple wolf turn, which she does faster than anybody else, and aside from a small balance check where she adjusted her foot on the beam and a broken connection, she hit her aerials, back handsprings and layouts. She nailed her double pike dismount and beamed. She patted her chest and ran off the podium to hug her coach, Cecile Landi. She laughed and pointed to a man in the stands who waved two big cutouts of her French bulldogs, Lilo and Rambo.
She exhaled deeply and waited for her score, nodding when she saw 14.000 flash on the screens. It was lower than her score in qualifying, but with an execution score that was three-tenths higher (she hopped backwards several times on her dismount in qualifying). 14.0 put her in second place, just behind China’s Tang Xijing, who’d gone before her.
She’d done the damn thing and finished her second and likely last Olympic games with a beam routine to be proud of. Now, she just had to wait through the remaining five gymnasts to see if her score would hold for a medal. Teammate Sunisa Lee’s score wouldn’t knock her. She landed on one foot after an acrobatic series and admirably fought the forces of gravity to stay on the beam. Neither would ROC’s Vladislava Urasova, who failed to complete an acrobatic series in her routine and finished with a very-low 5.0 D score. Nor would Brazil’s Flavia Saraiva, who grabbed the beam with her hands when landing a layout series. Last up was the gold medal favorite, China’s Guan Chenchen, which meant Biles was guaranteed a medal, either silver or bronze. Guan wasn’t at her best, either, but her 6.6. D score, the highest in the competition, won her the gold.
Biles, after a dangerous vault, and a tense and frustrating week, had outlasted for the bronze medal.
“I wasn’t expecting to walk away with the medal,” Biles told reporters afterwards. “I was just going out there doing this for me.”
“I hope it sends [the message] that first I did this for me and nobody else because I wanted to compete one more time at the Olympic Games,” Biles said. “It’s not easy giving up a dream of five years and not getting to do it. It was really, really hard. I’ve never been in the stands, so I just wasn’t used to it so to have one more opportunity to compete meant the world.”
Reporters asked Cecile Landi, Biles’s coach, what would be next for her athlete. “Therapy,” she said. “Probably some for me too. It’s been a hell of a week.”
Biles told the Today Show this morning that she went to the Olympic Village after pulling out of the team event last week. She expected to feel embarrassed as she walked through the village, but something unexpected happened. Athlete after athlete came up to her, to thank her for her decision to prioritize her mental and physical health. “In that moment I was like, there’s more than gymnastics and medals,” she said.
Biles has talked in depth about her bronze medal on beam from the 2016 Rio Olympics, frustrated that no one seems to appreciate that one, that it’s framed as a disappointment because she was expected to win. It was her only bronze medal among four gold from those games.
This bronze medal, her second, just might become the most meaningful of her seven Olympic medals because of all it represents: her choice to protect herself over the expectations set for her, and her decision to come back and win on her own terms.