Heading into the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, many were confident the USA Women’s Gymnastics team would bring home team gold. The team consisted of Grace McCallum, Simone Biles, Sunisa Lee, and Jordan Chiles.
Simone Biles has been fondly referred to as the GOAT—the greatest of all time—for her groundbreaking gymnastics. In the 2016 Rio Olympics alone, she won four gold medals and a bronze medal. This was an incredible feat, considering there is a total of six competitions in which participants can medal. On top of that, Biles also has four different skills named after her.
More importantly, Biles has made great strides for athletes in her push for safe sports and the prioritization of mental health for athletes. In an interview pre-Tokyo she explained, “I just felt I had more to give to the sport.” She mentioned some of her motivation was to hold USA Gymnastics accountable for Larry Nassar’s abuse. “I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side… coming back, gymnastics wasn’t the only purpose.”
Throughout the Olympics, Biles and her teammates proved just that.
What happened during the team competition
The competition began for the US women on vault. Biles did not complete the incredibly difficult Amânar vault she attempted, and changed mid-air to a simpler one. Olympian Laurie Hernandez noted how impressive it was that Biles was able to even land on her feet. Similarly, Olympian Nastia Liukin echoed this later on, explaining how dangerous it is for that to happen.
Biles revealed that she had been struggling with “the twisties” after the competition. This is a problem many gymnasts face where they cannot figure out where they are while twisting through the air. The name may sound silly, but many have come to Biles’ defense explaining how terrifying and dangerous it is. Not knowing where you are in space can end in a number of extremely serious injuries. Doing skills at the level that Biles does, “the twisties” is a life threatening mental block.
Biles’ former coach, Aimee Boorman, explained to Today what causes the twisties for Biles. “It usually had nothing to do with gymnastics itself, it had to do with other things going on in her, in her universe.”
After her vault, Biles disappeared with a trainer and came out with her foot wrapped up. She informed her teammates that she would be pulling out the rest of the competition.
Three members of the four-person team must compete on each apparatus. These are floor exercise, vault, balance beam, and the uneven bars. When Biles pulled out, the lineup had to change. Jordan Chiles needed to compete bars and beam, and Suni Lee had to compete floor.
The positive impact of the team’s support
There isn’t a good place to start when explaining how incredible this team of women are. Lee and Chiles walked on to the competition floor not expecting to compete on floor, and bars and beam, respectively. The fact that these girls were able to mentally handle changing the plan so quickly and drastically is incredible.
In the press conference afterward Lee discussed how she “called Jordan and Grace over” when she watched Simone exit the floor. She told her teammates, “We got this. Just do what we normally do, nothing more nothing less.” In short, while Biles has always been a leader for the team, Lee also stepped up to help her with that role.
Being the heavy favorites for the team gold medal, it would also be easy to understand if the rest of the team was upset about silver. However, with their usual class, elegance, and grace, the girls expressed nothing but pride in their fellow teammates and silver medal, as they rightfully should. In fact, they were the first to congratulate the Russian team on their gold medal, hugging the girls before the Russian coaches even could.
In the press conference following the competition, Biles attempted to explain why she thought the medal wasn’t technically “hers.” She stated, “I didn’t do my job. They came out and they stepped up and they did what they needed to do and more… this medal is all them and the coaches and it has nothing to do with me because they did it without me.”
Chiles, however, quickly refuted, explaining that they actually dedicated the medal to Biles. “This medal is definitely for her because if it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t be here where we are right now. We wouldn’t be silver Olympic medalists [if not for] who she is as a person.”
Not only that, but throughout the entire team competition the girls were giggling, bubbly and cheering for each other every step of the way. It would be so easy to break down under the sort of pressure they were under. Instead, there were endless hugs, smiles, and even some dancing from Jordan Chiles.
In the face of disappointment and backlash, these four girls showed resilience, class, and undeniable grit. Unlike the critical Americans of their home country, they have showed nothing but love, support, and pride in themselves and their teammate.
Biles’ impact on athlete mental health
For Simone Biles, pulling out of the competition was her decision. It was a result of her recognizing the needs of her mental health. When asked whether she was pulled out or decided to step down, she openly stated that she wasn’t physically injured, but that she told her coaches “I need to call it.” It would take unspeakable courage to make this decision with almost no time to think about it, and knowing the media frenzy that would follow.
After all, many people have a hard time admitting they’re not okay to their friends or family members.
Now imagine doing it in front of the entire world.
She could have easily blamed it on an injury. Biles reportedly came back out of the discussion with her coaches with her ankle taped up. It would have been simple to say that she hurt her ankle, and wanted to save it for competition later in the week. A physical injury is an injury no one would question.
Instead, Biles openly admitted that her head wasn’t in the game. It couldn’t be. Her body and mind were not in sync with each other.
In a split second, Simone Biles taught a lesson that no one actively competing for USA Gymnastics has ever dared to suggest: listen to your body and know your limits.
Gymnastics is a somewhat unique sport. On an off day, a gymnast isn’t just risking losing a medal. They could be seriously injured: broken bones, paralysis, the possibilities are horrifyingly endless. Until now, for gymnasts on competitions days, competing was the only option unless you are physically unable to.
What’s more is that Biles spent the next two hours standing in front of hundreds of cameras. She knew the criticism she would face, and the easiest thing to do in that moment would have been to walk away. Instead, she stayed through the entire competition to lead and support her teammates. She told Today’s Hoda Kotb,”I had to cheer on my girls, they worked too hard and I was gonna be there to support them no matter what.”
Why all of this is far more important than a medal
Critics say that she abandoned the team. Some say they’d be pissed if she was their teammate. Others say she cost the gold medal.
Some have even called her weak.
In the past, Biles has competed with broken toes and with a kidney stone. She also faced abuse from Larry Nassar, whom USA Gymnastics did nothing but protect and enable until they legally could not anymore. Biles has competed for an organization that sees her as capital, not as a person, for years. She is as far from weak as you can get.
There are very few people on earth that could understand what Biles has struggled with throughout the 2021 Olympics. On top of the pressure of being an Olympic athlete, she faced the pressure from her past achievements, along with facing the trauma USAG allowed her to endure for years. The mental obstacles alone that she dealt with would break most people.
Biles still came out of it with two Olympic medals.
At the end of the day, Biles and her teammates owe nothing to the United States, USA gymnastics, or anyone else. They performed the best that they could with the circumstances handed to them, and achieved the extraordinary. These girls showed the world what strength, sportsmanship, and perseverance looks like. They opened a door to discussing mental health in Gymnastics that no one has ever even dared to go near. Along the way, they also won multiple Olympic medals. But those medals, as coveted as they may be, will never compare to the footprint they left on the sports community.