The United States lost its most decorated gymnast in history after the first of Tuesday’s four-round women’s team finals at Tokyo’s Ariake Gymnastics Centre, but still managed to land the silver medal. A thrilling and improbable comeback for gold, which brought fellow Olympians in attendance to their feet, nearly materialized thanks to a trio of stellar performances from Vancouver, Washington, native Jordan Chiles.
Thrown into the lineup in a pressure-packed situation, Chiles, 20, gave the Americans a chance with a solid score of 14.666 on the vault. With Biles committing a major landing error during her vault and a subpar showing from Grace McCallum in the event, the U.S. women fell into a significant 1-point hole behind first-place Russia. The Russian team is officially performing as the Russian Olympic Committee due to Olympic sanctions.
Biles headed to the locker room immediately after landing her vault and returned minutes later in a team jacket and sweatpants in the wake of what USA Gymnastics described as a medical issue. Biles said after the event that her mental health was not where it needed to be.
“I felt like it would be better to take a back seat and work on my mindfulness,” she said. “I knew the girls would do a great job and I didn’t want to risk the team a medal with my screwups because they’ve worked way too hard for that.”
Just like that, the Americans were without their leader.
“It was definitely unexpected,” Chiles said. “We were emotional when we found out she wasn’t going to continue.”
But then Chiles, a graduate of Prairie High School, stepped up as the team’s anchor.
Just two days after posting her worst score of the year in the uneven bars during Sunday’s individual qualifiers, Chiles delivered a spectacular 14.166-point showing in relief of Biles, complementing teammate Suni Lee’s near-perfect 15.4 to bring the U.S. back within striking distance of gold.
Pumping her fist and screaming “let’s go,” Chiles motioned to the small crowd – reduced to fellow gymnasts on the men’s side because of COVID-19 measures – and shouted.
The comeback seemed destined after Chiles and Lee both nailed their balance beam routines, scoring 13.433 and 14.13, respectively. Instead of her usual full-twisting double back dismount, Chiles opted for a more conservative double pike – playing it safe after two ROC gymnasts fell off the beam.
But a history-making victory was not in the cards. Still trailing at the start of the floor exercise, Chiles stepped out of bounds early in her 90-second routine and later fell. The 11-point showing dashed any remaining hope of a gold medal as the three ROC gymnasts completed their routines almost perfectly.
The U.S. finished with 166.096 points, far behind ROC’s 169.528 score but well ahead of surprise bronze medalist Great Britain. Losing Biles, Chiles said, was comparable to the Chicago Bulls losing Michael Jordan during the NBA Finals.
And nearly an hour after leaving the floor, it was clear Biles’ teammates were forgiving of their leader, but also still very stunned.
“I came in thinking I was only doing two events, but being able to put my feet in huge shoes at the end of the day is huge for me,” Chiles said.
Biles went through a team workout earlier in the morning that finished five hours before the team’s competition on Tuesday night. She said “a lot of different variables,” including the discomfort of performing without fans and her inability to nap before Tuesday’s competition, contributed to her decision to withdraw.
“I’ve never felt like this going into a competition before,” she said. “Once I came out here I was just like ‘no, mental [health] is not there. I need to let the girls do this and just focus on myself.'”
Biles suggested that the stress of being the world’s most popular gymnast has also steadily worn her down.
“We should be out here having fun and sometimes that’s just not the case,” she said.
“This medal is definitely for Simone,” Lee added, “because if it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t be where we are now.”
The U.S. entered the Olympics as a gold-medal favorite in the team event, and Chiles had realistic hopes of medaling individually. Despite ending her first and likely only Olympics with just a silver medal, she left the gymnastics center on Tuesday night feeling at peace.
It turned out, after a decade of training, the end result wasn’t the most important piece of her gymnastics journey.
“It’s not about the scoring and it’s not about the medals. We are who we are as people and we came together and did our job when we needed to. And that’s all that really matters.”