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Simone Biles makes stunning withdrawal; U.S. women’s gymnastics takes silver

American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the team and individual all-around finals during the first week of the Tokyo Olympics. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

TOKYO — When Simone Biles soars through the air, her skills flow in an effortless rhythm that makes the extraordinary seem simple. She has been superhumanly dominant for nearly a decade, with a load of pressure and expectations always resting on her shoulders. But as Biles pushed off the vaulting table Tuesday night, her first flight of the evening, a peculiar sight emerged: She looked lost and shaken as she flipped and twisted, unable to perform the skill she intended.

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So Biles did the unthinkable: She stepped away from the meet and her role in her country’s quest for another Olympic gold medal in the women’s gymnastics team competition.

After her unusual vault, Biles scurried out of the arena with a medical staffer by her side. She said she realized she wasn’t in “the right head space.” When Biles returned to the competition floor, she pulled her sweatsuit over her leotard and hugged her three teammates, who suddenly became aware they would have to compete without her.

At first, they were stressed and in tears. Ultimately, they earned a silver medal, placing second to the Russian Olympic Committee team.

Simone Biles and the price of being a GOAT

At 24, Biles is the veteran on the team. But she says she doesn’t trust herself as she used to. The sport doesn’t feel as much fun, she says. Nerves bubble to the surface, especially in the high-stakes environment of an Olympic gymnastics team final. And Tuesday, it all became too much for the world’s best gymnast.

“I know that this Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself,” Biles said afterward, tearing up. “I came here, and I felt like I was still doing it for other people. So that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”

Biles stands among the world’s most popular athletes. She holds power to spark change with her words. She has been an outspoken critic of USA Gymnastics, the national governing body she represents, and how it failed to protect gymnasts from sexual abuse. Biles is the only self-identified survivor of former national team doctor Larry Nassar’s crimes still competing at the elite level.

After the United States qualified for the team final in second place Sunday, Biles wrote on social media, “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”

When asked about those comments following her decision to withdraw from the team final, Biles said, “Yeah, that s--- [is] heavy.”

Five years ago, when Biles led the United States to a gold medal at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she probably wouldn’t have made the choice to withdraw, she told reporters. Biles said she might have pushed through, attempting dangerous skills while second-guessing herself and “fighting all those demons” that occupied her mind. In 2021, she said, withdrawing was the right option — for her safety and even for the team’s medal chances.

“We want to walk out of here,” Biles said. “Not be dragged out of here on a stretcher or anything. So it’s like, got to do what’s best for me, and that was what was best for the team.”

Biles arrived in Tokyo with the expectation that she could earn up to five gold medals. Now she has a silver and a spot in five individual finals — the all-around competition, as well as the final for each apparatus. But she doesn’t know what lies ahead for her at these Games.

Here’s what is left on Simone BIles’s Olympic schedule

“We’re going to take it a day at a time, and we’ll see what happens,” Biles said. She confirmed that she had no injury — “Just my pride is hurt a little bit.”

With the all-around final Thursday, Biles acknowledges that there will be a quick turnaround. Annie Heffernon, the vice president of the U.S. women’s gymnastics program, said USA Gymnastics has a plan to help get Biles the professional support she needs. Biles said therapy has helped her in the past with mental health challenges. But this high-stress atmosphere of the Olympics made the struggle on the competition floor too much to overcome.

“Going into the next couple days, it’s like …” Biles said, pausing to collect her emotions as her teammates wrapped their arms around her. “Sorry,” she said. “It is what it is. Whatever happens, happens.”

Biles could return to herself — a dominant gymnast who understands that her performance here is secondary. Or she might not feel comfortable enough to compete again. Biles said her goal for the rest of the Olympics is to “focus on my well-being and [that] there’s more to life than just gymnastics.”

As Biles trained for her second Olympics, she said she wanted the Games to be about herself — not about what others thought and not all those otherworldly expectations that she can somehow usually meet anyway. As these Games approached, Biles said, she felt that mind-set drifting. The struggles seeped into her training, prompting mental errors. The vault in the team final was the first public sign that something was not right, but her teammates had witnessed similar episodes in practices.

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“She was giving us a little heart attack,” teammate Jordan Chiles said.

“It just sucks that it happens here at the Olympic Games, because it can happen any other time,” Biles said. “But with the year that it’s been, I’m really not surprised how it played out.”

As Biles stood on the sideline Tuesday night wearing a white sweatsuit and cheering for her teammates, she processed the decision she had made on the sport’s biggest stage.

“At the end of the day, we’re human, too,” Biles said, “We have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

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