TOKYO — Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, came into the Tokyo Games as the headliner propped up by NBC and sponsors like Visa as a can’t miss star of the show. But after she withdrew from both the team final and individual all-around gymnastics events this week, citing mental health issues, a new question emerged: Is this the end of her Olympics?
She has four more opportunities to compete next week, but to do so she would need to overcome the mental block that she said caused her to pull out of the team final on Tuesday night. Some coaches — including Jess Graba, who coaches the American Sunisa Lee — say that recalibrating that quickly is easier said than done for a gymnast, whose mind and body must sync for particularly complex and dangerous moves.
“Normally something like this happens in practice, not in a competition, so you can take your time to address it,” Graba said in a telephone interview on Wednesday from the team’s hotel in Tokyo, adding that Lee, who will compete in the all-around in Tokyo, has faced similar mental obstacles before.
Regarding Lee’s experience, he said: “If you have a week or two to prepare, you could probably get her back to what she needed to do.”
At these Games, however, Biles does not have time to spare. And that could mean an end of an era.
Biles, who won a silver medal with her team on Tuesday night, has dominated gymnastic all-around competitions. Those events test individual athletes on all four disciplines: vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise, to determine the most complete gymnast. The last time she lost an all-around event was in 2013, when she was 16 and still wore braces.
In Tokyo, Biles, 24, was expected to defend her all-around title from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics to become the first woman to win back-to-back titles in the all-around in 53 years. She also had qualified for all four finals in each individual event at these Games next week and was widely expected to win at least three golds.
If Biles doesn’t compete at these Games at all, there’s a distant possibility that she will try for the 2024 Olympics in Paris to honor her coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, who are French. But she says she is tired and stressed, and that retirement is looking more and more appealing.
Biles still hasn’t made public her plans for next week’s events. She will be evaluated daily to see if she will participate in the event finals next week, USA Gymnastics said in an emailed statement.
“We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being,” the statement said. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”
Other gymnasts are poised to compete in her place. Jade Carey, who finished ninth in the all-around during qualifications, already replaced her in Thursday’s all-around final.
While Biles had come to the Tokyo Olympics feeling “pretty good,” the weight of expectations on her as Team USA’s biggest star became tougher by the day. In the hours before the team final she said she was shaking and had trouble taking her usual nap.
In the end, the pressure of being considered the greatest gymnast of all time — someone who should be perfect and always deliver incredibly complex and unique skills — was just too heavy for her to bear, she said after withdrawing from the team final.
“It just sucks when you are fighting with your own head,” she said.
During her vault in the first event on Tuesday night, Biles said she got lost in the air and didn’t know where her body was in relation to the ground. She ended up performing a much simpler vault than her usual daring ones. On the landing, she bounded forward to stay on her feet.
Biles told her coach and a team doctor that she was not in the right “head space” to continue because she was afraid of injuring herself, and also because she didn’t want to jeopardize the team’s chances at winning a medal.
“I want to walk out of here, not be dragged out by a stretcher or something,” said after the final.
There were clues that she had been struggling before the medal event. She made several uncharacteristic errors in qualifying, including stumbling in her landing off the balance beam, sliding out of bounds on the floor exercise and vaulting so crookedly that she stepped off the mat after landing.
After those errors, she grimaced and even joked around with her teammates, which wasn’t her usual behavior, either, especially when her performances are not going well. Still, she finished first in the all-around qualifications because her skills and technique are tiers above the gymnasts who would challenge her.
In quotes provided by the Olympic News Service after qualifying, Biles said her goal for the team final was to make “top three” — a particularly low expectation because the United States team has not lost a world championship or an Olympics in more than a decade. The next day, she said on social media, “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”
Relaxing could help Biles get back into the right head space for competition, Graba said, and she might have to ease back into her skills before she can be confident enough to compete them safely. That’s usually done by training those skills on a soft surface, including by landing them in a foam pit, to help the gymnast regain her confidence, but the facilities at the Olympics don’t have foam pits, he said.
After the team final, Biles said she would take off Wednesday morning to practice some mindfulness. Without friends or family here, it has been hard to cope with the Games, she said. This is the first time her parents have not been in the stands at a meet and the first time she couldn’t scan the stands to find them, for comfort.
The team decided to forgo the Athletes’ Village for a hotel near the gymnastics venue after Kara Eaker, one of the team’s alternates, tested positive for COVID-19 during a training camp in Japan before the Olympics. The move has left the team isolated. Biles and her teammates — Lee, Skinner, Carey, Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles — have had no choice but to step up as each other’s support system.
They hang out in the hallway of their hotel and gossip, create TikTok videos, play board games and try to find calm by coloring in coloring books. They also have been making encouraging posters for each other, Graba said, affixing them on each other’s hotel room doors.
On Tuesday, Biles had a simple piece of masking tape on her door. It said. “Smile! You’re at the Olympics!”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.