In one of the most bizarre moments in Olympic Games history, Simone Biles, the reigning Olympic and World all-around champion, took herself out of the Olympic team final one rotation into the competition Tuesday night citing mental health concerns.
Biles removed herself from competition after making a rare mistake on the vault, stunning her teammates, her fellow competitors and the sport she has dominated for the better part of a decade.
"I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat, worked on my mindfulness and I knew the girls would do an absolutely great job and I didn't want to risk the team a medal too for kind of my screw-up because they worked way too hard for that," Biles said. "So I just decided that the girls need to go and do the rest of (the events)."
With Biles on the sidelines, Russia dethroned Team USA as the queens of gymnastics, capturing the gold medal in a rout, posting a score of 169.528. The U.S. only really threatened the Russians briefly after the third rotation before being undone by mistakes and low degree of difficulty, a theme for the Americans all night, finishing at 166.096
The Russian victory ends a decade of unmatched U.S. success in international women's gymnastics. Team USA had won every Olympic and World team title available since 2010.
"It's not really about the scoring, it's not really about the medals," Biles said. "I understand some people will say something, but at the end of the day, we are who we are as people. We came together and did our job when we needed to, and that's all that really matters."
The first sign of trouble came on Biles' vault. She planned to do a Yurcenko 2 1/2, but only managed 1 1/2 rotations before stumbling on the landing. She received a 13.766 score, well before her usual marks in an event in which she is the Olympic champion and a two-time Worlds gold medalist.
"I did not choose to do a one-and-a-half," Biles said laughing. "I tried to do a two-and-a-half, and that just was not clicking. It's very uncharacteristic of me, and it just sucks that it happened here at the Olympic Games. With the year that it's been, I'm really not surprised how it played out.
"So it definitely wasn't my best work."
As soon as Biles walked off the vault competition area she began a series of animated conversations with the U.S. coaching staff.
"I was like, 'I think the girls need to do the rest of the competition without me. I promise you, you are fine. I watched you warm up.' I said, 'I know I'm going to be fine, but I can't risk a medal for the team, so I need to call it,'" Biles said. "You usually don't hear me say things like that because I usually persevere and push through things. But not to cost the team a medal, they were like, 'OK, if Simone says this, then we need to take it pretty serious.' I had the correct people around to do that.
"Today has been really stressful. We had a workout this morning. It went OK. Then that 5 1/2 hour wait, I was just like shaking, could barely nap. I've never felt like this going into a competition before. I tried going out here and have fun. The warmup in the back went a little better, but once I came out here I was like, 'No, mental is not there. So I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.'
"I didn't do my job. They came out and stepped up and did what they needed to do and more, especially the last minute. This medal is all of them and the coaches, and it has nothing to do with me, because they did it without me."
Biles left the competition floor, walking with a trainer to a room just off the arena floor. She returned to the competition floor just before the U.S. started its second rotation on the uneven bars, a few minutes later. As her teammates prepared for the event, Biles put on her white Team USA sweatsuit. She was done for the day.
"It was very hard to lose a teammate, especially at the Olympic Games," said Sunisa Lee.
"It was definitely something that was unexpected," said Jordan Chiles, who trains with Biles in Spring, Texas, and was her emergency fill-in on the bars and balance beam in the three-up, three-down team final format. "We were kind of emotional when we found out that she wasn't going to continue. We kind of had to put our minds in a great position. Because at the end of the day, we were just out there to show what we needed to show. We went out there and did what we did and I'm just very proud that we were able to do that."
Biles said there is nothing wrong with her physically.
"No injury thankfully," she said. "And that's why I took a step back because I didn't want to do something silly out there and get injured.l So I thought it was best if the girls took over and did the rest of the job and they absolutely did. They're Olympic silver medalists now and they should be really proud of how well they did at the last minute, having to go in. And it's been really stressful, these Olympic Games. I think, as a whole, not having an audience, different variables going into it. It's been a long week, it's been a long Olympic process, it's been a long year. So it's a lot of different variables and I think we're a little too stressed out, that we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that's not the case."
Biles is scheduled to defend her all-around title Thursday and also compete in individual event finals later in the Games. But she said whether she competes again in Tokyo will be assessed on a day-to-day basis.
"We're going to take it one day at a time," she said. "I know today and tomorrow that we have a half day, or at least a morning off. So it will be a good mental rest. So we'll take it from there.
"I say put mental health first, because if you don't, then you're not going to enjoy your sport and you're not going to succeed as much as you want to. It's OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and a person that you really are, rather than just battle through it. ... Hopefully I'll get back there and compete a couple more events. We'll see."
Either way, Biles finds herself with an interesting dilemma. If she competes in the all-around or the individual events, critics may say she abandoned her U.S. teammates only to pursue individual glory just days later. If Biles is in fact done competing in Tokyo, she has to ask herself what did she spend the last five years training for?
Biles struggled uncharacteristically in Sunday's qualifying round, although she posted the highest individual score. But it was the first hint that the pressure of being the face of these Games as well as the most well known and one of the most vocal survivors of former U.S. Olympic and national team physician Larry Nassar's sexual abuse was taking a toll.
"In the back gym, coming in today, it was like fighting all those demons, 'I have to put my pride aside, I have to do it for the team," Biles said. "At the end of the day, I have to do what's right for me and focus on my mental health, and not jeopardize my health and well-being. ...
"I just don't trust myself as much as I used to. I don't know if it's age. I'm a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I'm also not having as much fun, and I know that this Olympic Games," she continued starting to weep, "I wanted it to be for myself.
"I was still doing it for other people, so it hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people."
The evening took a bizarre turn before the third rotation when Today Show co-host Hoda Kotb, dressed in a red, white and blue Ralph Lauren outfit similar to Team USA gear, tried to lead the few spectators in attendance in cheers for Biles. Kotb, standing on an NBC live shot platform just above the balance beam area shouted "I love you Simone."
The surreal nature of the night continued in the post-competition press conference. The U.S. athletes, including Biles, giggled and joked through most of it, seemingly unfazed they had just lost the sport's ultimate prize, a gold medal they were overwhelmingly favored to win easily just days earlier.
At one point Chiles started talking about how she was looking forward to getting on TikTok when the team got back to the Olympic Village.
"I don't know if you've seen the last ones we've been doing, but they're pretty funny," she said. "People are just so funny on that thing. You sit in your room and watch a cat fall from the ceiling. You're like, 'What? That makes no sense."
"We might do one today," her teammate Grace McCallum chimed in.