Simone Biles, a two-time bronze medalist in beam, and the most successful American gymnast with seven medals including four golds, closed her Olympics on Tuesday. Biles didn't allow her Tokyo failures to define her. Instead, her lasting memories will show her cheering on her competitors and teammates and returning to competition under intense scrutiny and pressure to win the last Olympic medal of her career.
Biles stated that he didn't expect to win a medal in beam. "I was just trying one more beam set. It meant everything to me to have another chance to compete at the Olympics.
Biles didn't confirm whether she would continue training ahead of the world championships in Kitakyushu (Japan) in October or the Paris Olympics 2024. No matter what her decision, Biles' extraordinary legacy extends far beyond her medals or accolades.
Perhaps it started with a post about pizza.
She posted an Instagram Boomerang of a greasy pizza with pepperoni four months before Biles led the U.S. team to gold at Rio Olympics 2016. She wrote "Happiness" and added some emojis. Although it received over 100,000 likes, most people who scrolled through it probably thought it was a teenage girl sharing her lunch.
This post was bold for generations of ex-gymnasts. Gymnasts weren't supposed to discuss junk food, vacations, or boyfriends. They were also not allowed to share their opinions in public places. Even for those who had long forgotten their leotards, the fear and control surrounding the sport encouraged silence and conformity.
As a reporter for the podcast "Heavy Medals", more than one former Olympian mentioned the post unprompted as an indicator of a long-overdue shift. It displayed a defiant teenage smugness, proving that Biles was not going to be folded or molded to fit into the box of a gymnast whose entire life was controlled and controlled from dawn until midnight.
Biles changed the archetype for what it means to be an elite gymnast.
Simone Biles speaks to her teammates at the Tokyo team finals. AP Photo/Ashley Landis
She (and her coaches, and her support team) showed a new way to win by inventing jaw-dropping skills and winning seven national championships as well as five world all-around titles and Olympic gold. She was brave in her performances and in sharing her life with others. Her success allowed other gymnasts to follow her lead.
Cecile Laurent, Biles' coach, stated in 2019 that she understood how powerful her voice was and it felt good. It's scary. She feels that she must do it for herself and the other girls.
After a few posts on National Pizza Day and vacations in Belize, Biles posted a January 2018 tweet where she revealed that Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics national team doctor, had also sexually abused her. She said that it was hard for her to have to return to the "same training facility where I was abused."
USAG shut down the Houston ranch facility, which was owned by Bela and Martha Karolyi, three days later and severed all ties with them. Biles' revelation and the reaction of USAG to it gave rise to other ex-elites who were able to speak out and share their truth. This train has gained momentum.
Aimee Boorman, Biles' former coach, once said to me that if she didn't put her life out there then she wouldn't be able to call out injustices on social media. Because she is open about her life, the world listens. Yes, I do have a boyfriend. Yes, I wear bikinis. Yes, this is an injustice in the whole world.
All this is the backdrop for last Tuesday's Tokyo team final. Gymnasts and fans cheered Biles' decision to withdraw from the competition after just one rotation. She was supported by her coaches and teammates. They were aware of the danger she was posing to herself and to the team's chances for a medal. They knew Biles would be there to support them if they switched roles.
Dominique Moceanu, 1996 Olympic gold medalist, wrote that she was 14 years old when she suffered a tibial stress injury and that she had been left alone. She also posted a video showing her falling during a beam performance at 1996 Games and landing on the top of her head. "Simone Biles' decision shows that we have a say over our own health -- "a say" I never felt as an Olympian.
The cost of all those gold medals has been exposed by the revelations about Nassar and the psychological and mental abuse of gymnasts by coaches, as well as the U.S. team staff. The last five years have prompted the gymnastics community cheer on any gymnast who chooses safety over sport, mental and physical health over medals or team, even the greatest of all-time.
Biles' decision has led to conversations that Biles can not control around the globe. People who don't know Biles' unwavering commitment to her sport and her teammates, as well as a country that has failed her repeatedly over and over again, can either call her selfish or a quitter.
They can then Google the 2018 World Championships in Doha (Qatar), where she won the largest margin of victory in American history. She also performed vaults (now called the "Biles"), that no woman had ever completed. All this while undergoing treatment for a kidney stone. Biles wrote on Twitter, "The kidney stones can wait," 24 hours before the competition. "Doing it to support my team."
Biles wore a teal Leotard in 2018 to raise awareness about sexual assault and honor Nassar survivors. He then won the all around at world championships after suffering from a painful kidney stone. Francois Nel/Getty Images
Or the 2018 Boston nationals, where she won with broken toes on both her feet.
Or the 2019 nationals. Biles won her sixth U.S. All-around title after she broke down during a group interview where a journalist revealed that a congressional investigation had concluded that USAG and USOPC "knowingly concealed" Nassar abuse.
Or her 2016 Olympic performance. She won a record five Olympic medals and it was not known to the rest of the world that Biles and her team had been molested by their U.S. team doctor for years.
Oder any of the many interviews Biles has conducted since 2018, calling for accountability for her sister survivors by USAG and the FBI, or advocating support for women, Black women, and foster children.
What about the women's gymnastics competitions in Tokyo this week? Biles refused to be pushed to compete despite the fact that former elites shared their harrowing stories on social media, including about injuries sustained while competing. Instead, Biles sat in the crowd cheering on her teammates who were shining in her absence. To reveal the difficulties of the past week, she waited until competition was over. After beam finals, Biles stated that it was not easy to give up on a five-year-old dream.
She was not the favorite to win gold in beam when she returned to competition Tuesday. Out of caution, she changed her dismount from a double twisting double tuck into a double pike. She smiled, shook her head, and seized her relief to show that she was more than just a medalist.
Gymnasts didn't believe that they could control their bodies or make decisions for themselves for decades. They didn't believe they could speak for themselves. They didn't believe that if they spoke up, they would be heard. After retiring from the sport, they spent years healing from the trauma. It was amazing to see an elite gymnast, the elite gymnast, make the decision that Biles did in real-time on the sport's biggest stage. She made the game change again.
She showed that there has been a cultural shift within gymnastics. The athletes are leading it. This moment cements Simone Biles’ legacy as one of the greatest ever.