Simone Biles, the most lauded U.S. gymnast in history, unexpectedly pulled out of the women’s team competition at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday, citing concerns about her mental health.
The four-time Olympic champ said a disappointing opening vault attempt rattled her and “after that performance I just didn’t want to go on.” Her teammates continued on in an ultimately futile fight for the gold medal against a resurgent team from Russia, taking silver instead.
“I’m just dealing with things internally that will get fixed in the next couple of days,” Biles told the BBC.
Asked if she would compete in the all-around event final on Thursday, Biles replied: “Yes.”
She was less certain about that in an interview with NBC’s Today show.
“Physically, I feel good, I’m in shape,” she told Hoda Kotb in Tokyo. “Emotionally, that kind of varies on the time and moment. Coming here to the Olympics and being the head star isn’t an easy feat.”
“We’re gonna take it day by day, and we’re just gonna see.”
After a weekend of videos showing Biles’ gravity-defying prowess in practice sessions, the 24-year-old made an uncharacteristically error-strewn official start in Tokyo preliminaries, posting on Instagram on Monday that she felt the “weight of the world” on her shoulders because of the pressure to perform.
“The Olympics is no joke!” she said.
She lined up as expected for Tuesday’s team competition, only to leave the arena with a coach after stumbling backward as she landed a vault that was already missing a technically demanding final twist. She returned to the competition floor soon afterward but pulled out of her next scheduled event, the uneven bars.
As speculation mounted that she had injured herself in the vault, NBC Sports’ John Roethlisberger clarified the situation: “We’ve just been told that, with regards to Simone withdrawing, it is not injury-related. It is a mental issue that Simone is having.”
USA Gymnastics muddied the waters with its statement: “Simone has withdrawn from the team final competition due to a medical issue. She will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions.”
Despite her withdrawal from the team competition, a masked Biles remained in the gymnastics arena to cheer on her teammates—including the Olympic debutante Suni Lee, who scored a huge 15.4 points on the uneven bars—as they fought to claw back points. Jordan Chiles, replacing Biles on the uneven bars and beam, put in stellar performances on both.
Biles, who even brought her teammates the tray of chalk for their hands, as they competed on, later said that her decision to withdraw was fueled, in part, by her concern for the other gymnasts’ chances to medal.
“After the performance that I did, I didn’t want to go into any of the other events second guessing myself, so I thought it was better if I took a step back and let these girls go out there and do the job and they did just that,” she told reporters.
But it was also an act of self-preservation, she said.
“We have to protect our body and our mind,” she said. “It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”
Biles is not the first global star to publicly lament the pressure at the Tokyo Games. Earlier Tuesday, the Japanese world No. 2 tennis player Naomi Osaka blamed the pressure of expectations for her straight-sets defeat at the hands of 42nd-ranked Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.
Osaka, who lit the Olympic cauldron on Friday, had just returned to competition after a two-month mental-health break that began with her dramatic departure from the French Open, where she came into conflict with organizers after refusing to attend media conferences.
It would be an even bigger story if Biles, the biggest American star of the Games, were now to pull out of individual events, which would force Team USA to call in alternate athletes who have been quarantining in Tokyo.
Current and former Team USA gymnasts were quick to rally for Biles.
The Russians, by the way, appeared to suffer from their own bout of nerves during the team finals, with both Angelina Melnikova and Vladislava Urazova earning point deductions by falling from the beam.
But the Russians steadied themselves and when Chiles fell during a tumbling pass on the floor, the final event, they had only to hold their nerve to earn their first Olympic gold since 1992, when the ex-Soviet stars competed as the Unified Team in Barcelona.
Last up, needing only not to make any mistakes, was Melnikova, the tall, elegant team leader. She delivered a technically demanding and flawlessly poised routine to score 13.966 points and guarantee the gold medal after a gripping superpower showdown. The Russian team finished on 169.528 points to the United States’ 166.096. It felt like the end of an era.