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BILES STICKS THE FINAL LANDING, LEAVING A MEMORY SHE DESERVES
The raging debate about mental health — and her withdrawal from the Olympics she was to have owned — was quieted when she won a final bronze medal and crafted a lesson in perseverance
The color of her medal didn’t matter. Nor did the color of her skin, which had become a needlessly divisive flashpoint at a moment in time when race inevitably is invoked. In the wee hours of an American morning, in a scene worth an early wake-up call and even the $4.99 upcharge of an NBC streaming app, this was about an Olympic legend sticking a landing from a balance beam and planting a reminder of her legacy.
Simone Biles did not stumble, trip or fall Tuesday. She didn’t suffer from ‘‘the twisties,’’ the lapse in awareness that caused her to withdraw from the team event, the all-around competition and three other individual contests at a Tokyo Games originally intended as her coronation vessel. Rather, the greatest of female gymnasts executed a no-twist, double pike dismount — with a lower degree of difficulty than her usual, full-twisting double back maneuver — and secured a bronze medal.
Then she smiled, placed her hand on her chest, patted her heart, ran to embrace her coach and blew kisses to a small but adoring crowd, as if to say, “What was all that commotion about, anyway?’’
“It’s been a very long week, a very long five years,’’ Biles said later. “I just wanted to go out and do it for me, and that’s what I did. I wasn’t even expecting to walk away with this medal. I was just trying to hit one more beam set.’’
If only she had slayed the “demons’’ in her head about nine days earlier. That way, we could have appreciated her brilliance in a shared communal experience that might have bonded a torn America. Instead, her choice to step away amid struggling performances — and the pressure of enormous expectations — raised doubts about whether she preferred to exit than lose face. And all that debate did was further divide the country, as some lauded her for prioritizing mental health while others — such as myself — cited examples of athletes who’ve overcome emotional and physical obstacles to achieve all-time glory.
Was she the enlightened one? Were we the cruel heavies? And wasn’t her strain more understandable after she revealed her aunt recently passed away?
“It wasn't easy pulling out of all those competitions," Biles said. “People just thought it was easy, but I physically and mentally was not in the right head space. And I didn't want to jeopardize my health and safety because, at the end of the day, it's not worth it. My mental and physical health is above all medals that I could ever win. So to be clear, to do beam — which I didn't think I was going to be able to do — it just meant the world to be back out there in the Olympics. … We’re not just entertainment; we’re humans. And there are things going on behind the scenes that we’re also trying to juggle, as well, on top of sports.’’
The discussion won’t end. But now, at least, we have a parting memory of what Biles has meant to her sport and the planet at large. With a seventh Olympic medal added to her 25 world-championship medals, she provided a blueprint of how to conquer depression and fear in addition to her massive accomplishments. In the end, the wellness lesson is more important than any of her triumphs on the mat. She overcame a diabolical doctor, the since-locked-away Larry Nassar, who sexually abused Biles and hundreds of female gymnasts. And in her last competitive hurrah, she stifled the twisties on a narrow piece of wood and made everyone feel good again, including International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, who was in attendance at the Ariake Gymnastics Center.
“After everything she’s gone through, it’s really cool to see how strong she’s being,’’ teammate McKayla Skinner said. “It’s amazing to see how she’s dealt with everything and all the horrible comments and just how people are responding to her. She is definitely one strong cookie, and she definitely has inspired me in so many ways.’’
The year in sport, already rattled by the pandemic, has been defined by the unforeseen absences of the world’s two foremost female athletes. In that context, it’s paramount that Biles and Naomi Osaka — who abruptly left the tennis circuit to manage her mental well-being — return from adversity and resume their mastery. Both under 25, both Gen Zers, they still can send messages to young people about traditional sports values such as toughness, determination and soldiering on. Biles did exactly that, returning to the scene of her pain after daily visits with the team physician, Marcia Faustin, while coaching her teammates to a bounty of medals from the sidelines.
For now, let’s tune out the cynics who say she competed only to sell tickets for her upcoming U.S. tour. You want to remember Biles for the famous final snapshots: the hugs for her teammates, the laughs when fans shouted her name, the intense exhales when it was all over.
“I was OK with missing finals because I knew I couldn't do it," she said. “My problem was why my body and my mind weren't in sync, and that's what I couldn't wrap my head around. Like, what happened? Was I overtired? And just like, where did the wires not connect? And that was really hard because it's like, I trained my whole life. I was physically ready. I was fine. And then this happens and it's something that was so out of my control."
Is she back in a space where she’s in control? Hour by hour, day by day, Simone Biles must figure out life as she leaves Japan. When someone asked about the Paris Games in three years, her response was chilling.
“Paris is definitely not in my mind frame,’’ she said, “because I think there are so many things that I have to work on for myself first.’’
In other words, leave her alone.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.