In midair, soaring over a vault, Simone Biles realized she had lost her way.
She came into the Olympics as Team U.S.A.’s star, expected to bring home gold medals and fulfill the obligations of a global celebrity. The weight of expectations loomed over her. Fans expected her to be spectacular and perfect, even here at the Tokyo Games without fans, friends or family.
And she was feeling far from perfect. On Tuesday, she said she began “fighting all of those demons,” and couldn’t hold them back. In this, perhaps her final Olympics after having won four golds during the 2016 Games, she wondered why she was even here.
“This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself when I came in — and I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” Biles, 24, said as she cried after the team event on Tuesday. “So that just, like, hurts my heart because doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
When she twisted fewer times in the air than she had planned in the vault, it was clear she was not herself, having lost track of her movement and failing to complete the kind of daring skill she is known for.
She walked off the mat, consulted with medical staff members, and left the competition, all but ensuring the rival Russian team would win gold, while the Americans would get silver. Four or five years ago, she said, she would have suffered through the competition despite being in mental turmoil, even chancing a serious injury. But not this time.
“Today it’s like, you know what, no, I don’t want to do something stupid and get hurt,” she said. “And it’s just it’s not worth it, especially when you have three amazing athletes that can step up to the plate and do it, not worth it.”
It was a stunning turnabout for the American team that had dominated the team event and it came hours after another superstar athlete, Naomi Osaka, was upset in the third round of the women’s singles tennis tournament by a player with a far lower ranking.
She, too, spoke of buckling under the high demands and pressure of the Olympic stage, having lit the Olympic cauldron and trying to fulfill the expectation of her home country to represent its modern face and win gold. “The scale of everything is a bit hard,” she said.
That two of the world’s biggest sports stars crumbled on the same day on the same stage shocked many but not the stars themselves.
For Biles, who had watched the documentary Osaka had produced about herself and her mental health struggles, it was simply a matter of find the resolve to save herself.
“At the end of the day, where we’re human to so we have to protect our mind in our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do,” she said. “With the year that it’s been. I’m really not surprised how it played out.”
She said she was not certain whether she would compete again at the Tokyo Games, starting with the all-around final on Thursday, an individual competition.
Biles told her teammates that she just wasn’t in the right head space to continue the team event and didn’t want to cost them a medal. They cried out of worry and sadness because Biles never backs out of a competition or admits to feeling vulnerable on competition day.
Yet they understood. Besides, they would not have gotten that far without her, the best gymnast alive. They were glad that Biles, with more international medals than any gymnast ever and one who even has her own G.O.A.T. — greatest of all time — emoji, returned to the competition floor to cheer them on.
“It was very emotional losing someone so important to the team” Sunisa Lee said, explaining that Biles has been her inspiration. “I feel like these Olympic Games were kind of hers.”
Her team ended up competing on the final three apparatuses, some of the gymnasts without even warming up or expecting to compete on those events but managed to win a silver medal anyway. They stood together after the long night, giving each other compliments about what they all had done. Kudos to you, for being so brave and doing the right thing to stay healthy, they told her.
“We did this for ourselves,” Jordan Chiles said. “But we also did this for her.”
No, kudos to you for powering through without me, Biles said to them. “They’re silver medalists,” she said. “So it’s something they should be very proud of because they did it without me.”
Russia finished with a total score of 169.528, more than 3 points ahead of the United States, which won silver, at 166.096. Britain won the bronze medal with a score of 164.096. With its win, Russia ended the dominant grip that the American team had held for more than a decade.
Russia had surprised the Americans in qualifying on Sunday, raising the pressure even higher for the U.S. team to maintain its unchallenged success in the sport.
The last time the United States lost a team final in the Olympics or world championships was back in 2010, to Russia. Since then, the United States has been far ahead of the world in the sport, winning world championships and Olympics by wide margins.
The U.S. team in Tokyo did what it could to preserve its legacy of success. But without Biles, the Americans simply could not keep up with the Russians. They appeared to have a chance at gold going into the final event, the floor exercise, though, and were only eight-tenths out of first. An untimely fall by Chiles, who landed on her rear end on one of her tumbling passes, gave Chiles a score of just 11.7 points, putting the Russians securely in the lead, for good.
One day after its men’s team won the Olympic gold medal, the Russian team’s women executed its challenging routines with precision and grace, while the Americans were trying their best to regroup. It didn’t help the Americans’ confidence that they came into the final trying to bounce back from a second-place finish to Russia in qualifying.
During that qualification on Sunday, Biles and some of her teammates made uncharacteristic mistakes because they were nervous. Biles stumbled on her balance beam dismount, taking a huge step and several tiny ones backward. On the floor exercise, she stepped so far out of bounds that she slid down the edge of the slanted, raised competition surface. On vault, she stepped off the mat after landing.
The next day, she posted a note on her Facebook page: “I truly do feel that I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me, but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics are no joke!”