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TOKYO — All along, Simone Biles shared the central conflict of her gymnastics life, and maybe we would have heard her if we saw her life as hers. This was it, simply: She often felt like she was performing for other people instead of for herself. On Tuesday morning in Japan, she came back from a devastating mental struggle and won a bronze medal on the balance beam. It will inspire millions of people. It will rile up those who lack empathy. It was, one hopes, for herself.
The moments we remember most vividly in life are often unexpected. We forget wedding toasts, but remember an introverted guest’s stunning dance moves during the reception. Small indignities and spontaneous moments of joy park themselves on our shoulders and stay there. A friend’s kindness when we get laid off. A stranger’s rude comment when our child has a meltdown in a grocery store. One bronze medal (and one silver) when everybody expected multiple golds.
Simone Biles’s Olympics are over. The end—a third-place finish on the beam—was the best kind of bronze: a pleasant surprise. It was not her greatest gymnastics performance. But this could be the medal that makes Biles the most emotional in 20 years.
“I wasn't expecting to walk away with a medal,” she said. “I was just going out here doing this for me, and whatever happened, happened.”
Biles has meant a lot to a lot of people for a long time, but in the last week, she came to mean something else. She pulled out of the team competition, and then all of her individual events until the last one: the beam. She cited her mental health, and this brought thunderous applause and some criticism as well. Simone was showing people how to put their well-being first. Simone was a Black woman who recognized her own worth. Simone was changing how people viewed mental health.
Simone was a gymnast who wanted to compete. The reaction startled her. She remembered being in the Olympic Village, “Everybody coming up to me and saying like, how much I meant and how much I've done for them.” There are good reasons she inspired people, but they were not her reasons. When she withdrew because of the “twisties,” a form of performance paralysis, she was embarrassed.
Imagine how your life would be covered if you were a celebrity. Your romances would be headlines. Your breakups would be gossip. Your worst professional days would inspire nationwide snark. Fans would call you a hero for signing an autograph or holding a door open. You would have to live with all that, but that would not be your life. The conversation around Biles in the last week is worthwhile and hopefully productive. It is still a conversation. It is not her life.
Her decision to pull out of Olympic events was not a conscious choice to prioritize her mental health. She pulled out because she couldn’t stay in. As she said Tuesday, “I literally couldn't do it, so there was no point. I had to pull out.” The way she handled it spoke so well of her, and surely, she learned more about herself. She supported the other gymnasts. She found out that she was just as popular—perhaps more popular—than if she had competed. But still, she wanted to compete.
There was tension in the Ariake Gymnastics Center as Biles got ready to perform Tuesday, and it wasn’t the kind of tension we normally associate with Biles, or even with lesser gymnasts. It was not medal tension. There were legitimate worries about whether she could mentally and physically perform her routine.
The official numbers for her evening: 6.1 difficulty, 7.9 execution, 14.0 total. That was good for second place when she was done and third place when everyone else finished. But the sensation was not of witnessing achievement, but of watching a person become whole again. The cheers from the U.S. section on the far end of the gym sounded more parental than patriotic.
Biles said Tuesday night that she plans to do her Gold Over America Tour with other gymnasts. If she is relieved the Olympics are over, she did not sound like a woman who wants to avoid the gym forever. She will be an important cultural figure in the United States for a long time, but that was never her goal here. Her goal was to win gold medals, and to perform for herself. She ended up with one silver and one bronze. She said, “I would change nothing.”
More Olympics Coverage:
• How Simone Biles Came Back to Win the Bronze of Her Life
• Former Gymnasts Left Paralyzed Are No Stranger to the Struggles Biles Faced
• Gabby Thomas Sets New Standard for Sprinters, On and Off the Track
• Bright Future Ahead for U.S. Swimming After Tokyo