What Simone Biles Said the Night Before She Withdrew from the Women's Gymnastics All-Around Final
"If somebody's feeling down, you have to step up — and they did just that," she said at a press conference, sitting alongside her three teammates
Minutes after she walked out of the gymnastics arena on Tuesday night — and in the wake of her dramatic exit from competition partway through the women's team final — all anyone wanted to ask Simone Biles was why, and what happened and what next.
And all Biles, 24, wanted to talk about was her teammates. All they wanted to talk about was her.
Such was the scene at the Tokyo Summer Games, as Biles and the rest of the U.S. women's gymnastics squad — Jordan Chiles, Suni Lee and Grace McCallum — sat for a press conference about their silver-medal finish in the team final.
What went wrong? What went right? Where do they go from here?
It was the first second-place Olympic finish for the U.S. team in more than a decade. It was also the first time they've ever had to compete under such conditions — a scramble set off when Biles floundered in her vault event and, in her words, realized she was not psychologically ready for the rest of the final and would need to rest and reset.
"I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a backseat, work on my mindfulness and I knew that the girls would do an absolutely great job," Biles told reporters. "I didn't want to risk the team a medal for, kind of, my screw-up — because they've worked way too hard for that."
She was also wary of the physical risk of competing in that condition, she said.
"I didn't want to do something silly out there and get injured, so I thought it was best that these girls took over," she said.
"I tried to go out here and have fun — and warm-up in the back felt a little bit better," she continued. "But then once I came out I was like, 'No, mental is not there.' So I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself."
"I felt a little bit lost in the air," Biles said (a serious problem some gymnasts know as the "twisties").
She withdrew after the first event — even as team officials insisted she was fine — and, under the rules of the competition, her three teammates had to complete the remainder of the apparatuses without a break. (Heading into Tuesday, Chiles thought she would only be competing in two events. Lee had mere seconds to warm up her tumbling for the floor routine.)
"It's really hard to lose the best in the world," McCallum said at the press conference after. "We definitely felt a little more stressed. But I'm really proud of how we did. I think we did amazing. We really fought."
Lee, grace under pressure, anchored the U.S team on bars and nailed her routine which had a difficulty value of 6.8 — the highest in the world.
"It was really hard. Right after [Biles] left, I kind of called Jordan and Grace over and I was just like, 'Okay guys, like, we got this. Just do what you normally do, nothing more, nothing less. We can go out there and show the world what we came here to do,' " Lee recalled later.
"And that's why we have teammates," Biles said next to her, "because if somebody's feeling down, you have to step up and they did just that. So kudos to them."
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"No," Chiles added, sitting beside her at the press conference. "Kudos to you."
They both smiled.
The next afternoon, citing "further medical evaluation," gymnastics officials announced that Biles would withdraw from the all-around final on Thursday where she had been set to defend her Olympic gold.
Any decision about the other events, the announcement continued, would be made on a case-by-case basis. The priority was Biles' health: "We wholeheartedly support Simone's decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being," USA Gymnastics said. "Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many."
It is difficult to overstate how strangely the last 24 hours have played out. No recent Olympian in memory has simply declined to continue their event without an injury after it had already started. But there has never been an Olympian like Biles, who is widely regarded as the greatest women's gymnast of all time.
She has only become more celebrated in the years since winning five medals — four gold — at the 2016 Rio Games, and she entered Tokyo as the face of Team USA, the leader of the women's team and perhaps the most famous gymnast on earth.
Biles has used that immense platform to advocate for her fellow gymnasts and herself in an environment that, as numerous elite athletes have attested before, can swallow them whole. She sharply criticized USA Gymnastics' handling of the serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar, who was a team doctor for decades. Biles, who said Nassar had abused her as well, said she continued to compete to "be a voice, to have change happen."
"I feel like if there weren't a remaining survivor in the sport, they would've just brushed it to the side," she told NBC in April. "But since I'm still here, and I have quite a social media presence and platform, they have to do something."
She had qualified for all six events. She could have earned six golds — an unheard of feat. But she had already been wavering on the mat, with her qualifying events marred by uncharacteristic errors.
On Monday, she spoke of the strain of carrying "the weight of the world." In the hours before Tuesday's final, she told reporters, she could barely rest at all. "I just never felt like this going into a competition before."
After earning the lowest Olympic score of her career in vault, her signature event, Biles briefly left the competition floor with a member of the team's medical staff. She returned, put on her warm-up gear and cheered from the side for the remainder of the final.
She put the focus on her teammates at the press conference as well — even as they said she had played a role in their medal, too. Sitting all together, the foursome traded compliments and occasional laughs.
Biles, despite the heavy subject matter and the expected string of questions from the waiting press, spoke easily and precisely about how she felt. It was a decision she had made herself, she said, and then had to explain to everyone else.
"I say put mental health first because if you don't, then you're not going to enjoy your score and you're not gonna succeed as much as you want to," she said. "So it's okay, sometimes, to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are. Rather than just battle through it."
She did not seem burdened. She was grateful to the squad for supporting her and then for stepping in.
"I didn't do my job," Biles said, adding, "This medal is all of them and the coaches, and it has nothing to do with me because they did it without me."
Chiles jumped in, gently: "But at the end of the day, we did though."
"You're so sweet," Biles told her.
"We really dedicate this medal to Simone," Lee added.
This continued, like a baton they were passing back and forth.
"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 because of who she is as a person. So this all … kudos to you, girlie, this is all for you," Chiles said.
"We're going to battle back and forth about this medal," Biles told her as they laughed.
Wrapping up for the night, Biles looked toward the next day. With the morning off, she told PEOPLE at the press conference, the team would have a needed break and a chance for "mindfulness." She said she had not made any decisions.
"It starts from outside the gym, however we want to relax. And we'll do that — hopefully get some fresh air. And we'll just see."
To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics now on NBC.