TOKYO - At 6 p.m. Tuesday, competitor No. 392 stood on a mat, No. 323 to her right, No. 395 to her left, introductions to an empty arena up next.
It’s the best way to think of what faced Simone Biles at Ariake Gymnastics Centre. Strip away the specter of the Tokyo Olympics, the five years of suffocating run-up, the scrutiny of and debate over her mental state and her willingness to compete. These were eight women in leotards, not “Simone” and “Sunisa” and “Flavia” - celebrities - but athletes with their identifying numbers affixed to their backs. Through that lens, this wasn’t the Olympic final on the beam, but a Saturday morning competition for kids - doughnuts and coffee for the parents off to the side. With the stands devoid of fans, it wasn’t such a stretch.
“I just did this for me,” Biles said, “and me only.”
It’s amazing how, over a week without competing, Biles has helped shift the athletic conversation to a place where it should have been all along. Not long ago, performing “for me and me only” would have sounded selfish. Now, in a certain context - in this context - it sounds healthy. Forget about the five medals from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and the skills no one else would or could perform, that made her a darling leading into these Games. She broke down. She admitted it. She got help. And here she was.
“I think it was a combination of a lot of things,” said her coach, Cecile Landi. “We saw it. It was the nerves, the pressure she felt, all those years of hard work.”
For a week, it was too much. For a night, it was restorative, rejuvenating, simple - not redemption, because that seems loaded with the assessment of others. Instead, this was just competitor 392 and the balance beam just like those she trains on back home in Texas: four inches wide, just more than four feet, one inch high, nearly 16 feet, five inches long.
So at 6 p.m., nothing was unfamiliar for competitor 392. She waved to the crowd - just coaches and journalists and photographers and other athletes. Two women - Nos. 313 and 323 - would go before her. She would have 90 seconds to perform a routine. Before she did, Landi walked up the steps to the stage on which the beam sat. She put her right arm around her athlete, who put her left arm around her coach.
“She wanted to be here,” Landi said. “She wasn’t forced.”
At 6:11 p.m., Biles lifted herself onto the beam. Landi watched from the side. The world watched from afar. These are tasks that, a week ago, would have seemed nearly impossible to normal humans, but were akin to breathing for Biles. Beam is easy, she said, because it doesn’t involve twisting in midair. What wasn’t easy: Figuring out why the ability to twist - ingrained for years - had escaped her in Tokyo.
“My problem was why my body and my mind weren’t in sync,” she said. “That’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around. What happened? Was I overtired? And just, where did the wires not connect?”
How does one listen to that and not ache? Yet there are no boundaries to the ridiculousness Biles has been subjected to since her decision to step away during the team final, then subsequent announcements that she would not - she could not - compete in the all-around, on the floor and the bars and the vault. British blowhard Piers Morgan’s question - “Are mental health issues the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport?” - shouldn’t even be acknowledged, but it’s not atypical of the blowback Biles faced, so apologies for the acknowledgment.
Here’s the thing: Somewhere in the buildup to Tokyo, Biles’s mind lost its very close relationship with her body. This wasn’t “poor performance.” It was an inability to perform. Is that weakness? Or is it an honest assessment by an athlete who knows herself, who understand when she’s right or she’s not? Twisting and flipping 10 or more feet above the floor - well, the results of a “poor performance” could be catastrophic.
“It wasn’t easy pulling out of all those competitions,” she said. “People just thought it was easy, but I physically and mentally was not in the right head space, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my health and safety. Because at the end of the day, it’s not worth it. My mental health and physical health is above all medals that I could ever win.”
Biles’s position in the sport - because at full capacity she’s so damn much better than everyone else - and her position as the American face of these Games - because NBC needed an appealing champion and picked her - mean her every action or inaction is assessed. She has done an exceptional job of explaining and framing her decisions, however bold, and her state of mind, however fragile. That all makes her worth defending.
The best way to appreciate what Biles did Tuesday night is to dispense with all the nonsense discourse around her because it does no one any good. “Twitter is not good for me right now,” she said, and could have been speaking for us all.
Tuesday night, Biles could be a 12-year-old getting back on the beam a week after falling, and trying again. Tuesday night, Biles could be a young athlete who needed, before she mounted the beam, Landi’s arm around her, words of encouragement in her ear. Tuesday night, Biles could be competitor 392.
“I’m proud of her,” Landi said.
On the beam, Biles was very good, not her best. Because her normal dismount involved twisting, she had to change it to something simpler, a choice that would lower her score. When she flipped off and landed, she smiled, then bounded down the stairs into Landi’s arms. Waiting for her score, it was as if all No. 392 needed to race out of the gym to meet her mom for a ride. She pulled on her sweatpants. She yanked on some socks. She might have yawned. When 14.000 popped up - a score that already trailed China’s Xijing Tang - she nodded.
Five more women were left to compete, but there was a sense of completion.
“I wasn’t expecting to medal,” she said, which was just short of, “I didn’t care if I medaled.”
At 6:40 p.m., Chenchen Guan of China flipped off the beam after a strong routine, and that was it. Some sort of assessment of who Simone Biles is - as an athlete, as a competitor, as a person - would be made about her over those 40 minutes. That’s no more fair than telling her she should have competed when she couldn’t. And it’s also not fair to assess what it all means in the moment. Breathe.
“I don’t really know how I’m feeling,” Biles said. “Right now, I feel like I have to go home and work on myself and be OK with what’s happened.”
That’s a process. And it matters.
Oh, right. The medals. Simone Biles won bronze in the beam Tuesday night, beaten by only Guan and Tang of China. Last month, that would have been the headline. In the end, it’s an afterthought. Over a week, she furthered the discourse about what we should expect of our athletes. That’s more important than execution and difficulty of the routine performed by competitor 392.