It isn't clear whether Biles will compete seriously again. At the Tokyo Games, the sport got an idea of what things might be like without her.
Simone Biles, a seven-time Olympic medalist, said goodbye to the Tokyo Games on Wednesday. She packed up her sparkly red, white and blue leotards and hair ribbons, and the white grips she wears on her hands to swing on the uneven bars. She tucked her silver and bronze Olympic medals away too, bittersweet reminders of some of the most stressful and confusing weeks of her life.
At home in Texas, her parents, Nellie and Ron Biles, cannot wait to see her. Because of coronavirus restrictions that barred fans from the Games, it was the first time they were not in the stands to watch her compete. Her welcoming committee is also bound to include her boyfriend, Houston Texans safety Jonathan Owens, and her siblings, who will be prepared to unleash some needed hugs.
It is clear that Biles will take a break from elite gymnastics, at least for now, and the Tokyo Games provided a glimpse of what the sport would look like without her, the most dominant gymnast in history. Her absence offered the chance for success to gymnasts and teams who might not have had it otherwise.
In Tokyo, the Russians won the team gold for the first time since the Unified team, a group from the former Soviet republics, won it in 1992. The US team, with Biles completing only a relatively simple vault, was second.
In the all-around competition, Sunisa Lee, an American, won, which surprised her because Biles had been nearly a lock for the gold given her talent and difficult routines. And Rebeca Andrade won Brazil's first two Olympic medals in women's gymnastics, including a gold on the vault.
Several other gymnasts became the first ones from their country to finish on the Olympic podium in a women's individual event: Belgium's Nina Derwael won her gold on the uneven bars; South Korea's Yeo Seo-jeong won a bronze on vault; and Vanessa Ferrari of Italy won silver on floor exercise, where Japan's Mai Murakami tied for the bronze.
"It's not going to be the same when Simone leaves because she's Simone freakin' Biles, the greatest gymnast ever," Lee said Sunday. "I think in the next era of gymnastics, we'll all have more confidence."
Russia came into the Tokyo Games feeling confident from the start, though. In qualifying, its gymnasts finished ahead of the US women for the first time since 2010, and Tom Forster, who is in charge of the women's national team for USA Gymnastics, said it could be a wake-up call for his team.
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The US team beat the Russians at the last Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, by more than 8 points. In Tokyo, the Russians beat the Americans by more than 3 points.
"I want to say congratulations to Russia for the amazing competition they did today, for the transformation they've made since 2019," Forster said after the qualifying session.
On Instagram on Wednesday, Biles posted a photo of a giant set of Olympic rings in Tokyo with a caption that said, "Not at all how I imagined or dreamed my second olympics would go but blessed to represent the usa." She added that she would cherish "this unique olympic experience" and thanked everyone for their love and support.
"Leaving Tokyo with 2 more Olympic medals to add to my collection isn't too shabby!" she wrote.
Biles' Olympics could have been a glorious ending to a lifetime of gruelling training, but it did not go as planned. She was favoured to win at least four gold medals but skipped almost everything besides the first and the last gymnastics events because a mental block caused her mind and body to go out of sync, preventing her from remembering how to twist in the air. When she announced that she would withdraw from the competition to spare her mental and physical well-being, many people embraced her as a brave advocate for mental health, while others labelled her a quitter.
With so much for her to process after these whirlwind Games, Biles said Tuesday after winning her bronze medal in the balance beam, she cannot say when or if she would return to the sport or train for the Paris Games in 2024.
"Paris is definitely not in my mind frame because I think there's so many things that I have to work on for myself first," she said.
Whether or not she comes back, Biles has raised the level of competition across the sport. Because of the complexity of her routines, other gymnasts are also pushing their limits so they also can garner higher scores. During the qualifying round, China's Guan Chenchen, for example, performed a balance beam routine that was the hardest in the world. On Tuesday, she won the gold and, at 16, could return for the next Olympics, which are only three years away.
Some countries, like Britain, thought their plan to move up in the international rankings would peak in 2024 — and not in Tokyo. The British women were sixth in the team final at the world championships in 2019 and then shot up the standings to win the bronze medal last week. It was the country's first Olympic medal in the team event for women's gymnastics in 93 years.
"Our biggest aim was to make Paris 2024, let alone coming away with a medal," Jennifer Gadirova said. "My dream was to make the Olympics and experience it, and even being here is an achievement in itself. It is incredible, and there are no words to describe it."
Jennifer and her twin sister, Jessica, are only 16, which is the minimum age for Olympic gymnasts, and have a huge upside. They will be only 19 at the 2024 Paris Olympics, while Biles would be 27.
Coming into the Tokyo Games, Biles hinted she would compete in Paris, but only in the vault, to honour her French coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi. Cecile Landi said Tuesday that she expects Biles to take a step back from the sport — and the stress — and that Biles will take things "one step at a time."
First on Biles' agenda will be mourning her aunt — her father's sister — who died several days ago. Next will be preparing to perform in her Gold Over America Tour, or GOAT, which features only women gymnasts and, according to Biles, celebrates girl power.
"I think she needs a good break," Landi said. "I'm happy for her that she gets to go to her family, her boyfriend, her dogs, and she's just going to go home and enjoy."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Juliet Macur
Photographs by: Chang W. Lee and Doug Mills
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES