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TOKYO — Simone Biles sat in the front row of the Ariake Gymnastics Centre stands, looking down on the Olympic women’s all-around competition that everyone, including the competitors themselves, expected her to dominate.
For eight years Biles was undefeated, a stretch that included five world all-arounds and the 2016 Olympic gold medal. Her brilliance knew no bounds. The degree of difficulty she could bring to a meet made her nearly invincible.
“Coming into this competition I didn’t even think I could be competing for a gold medal,” said Sunisa Lee. “I was competing for a silver medal.”
Well, Biles was in the stands and Lee was on the floor, winning the actual gold medal.
The scene here was as surreal as it was unfortunate — Biles sidelined with mental health issues that impacted her ability to focus while competing in Tuesday’s team event. Biles withdrew from that after one awkward, dangerous, low-scoring vault attempt.
The next day she decided she couldn’t defend her all-around title either. There is no word on whether she’ll appear in any of the four apparatus finals she qualified for when gymnastics returns Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
“We’re going to take it one day at a time,” Biles said earlier this week.
Biles' departure broke this competition wide open. What was once expected to be a forgone conclusion, was now a gymnastics free-for-all — the top four contenders posted qualifying scores that were separated by just 0.300 points. The actual competition went to the final rotation all within 0.500.
“It was a very interesting finals because there was a mystery [as to] who will be the champion, who will take the gold medal,” said Angelina Melnikova, the Russian great who won bronze.
The gymnasts benefitted competitively from having Biles sidelined but that doesn’t mean they were happy about it. This is a sport where everyone deals with mental struggles, confidence issues and ups and downs.
Melnikova discussed losing her “air sense” and suffering from the so-called “twisties” as Biles did when she didn’t know where she was while flipping over the vault. It’s dangerous and makes competing almost impossible.
“It is really, really hard to get rid of this problem,” she said. “It is very confusing.”
It’s one reason she had taken to social media to express her support.
“I think it is such a pity,” Melnikova said. “I really hope she will get better.”
Lee felt the same way. Even though a path was opened for her to be crowned champion, she said she missed her friend and idol.
“It sucks I couldn’t have Simone on the floor with me,” Lee said. “But to even have her in the arena was very helpful because she is an inspiration to me.”
Biles spent the night sitting with teammates Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum. Neither qualified for all-around. Biles' withdrawal allowed American Jade Carey to enter. She finished eighth.
Throughout the night, Biles looked and acted like a fan, shouting encouragement, cheering good performances and checking her phone. She and the others stood for the national anthem, hands over hearts, during Lee's medal ceremony, before cheering afterward.
During the meet, she was particularly vocal for her teammates, but she wasn’t shy about supporting all of the gymnasts from all of the countries.
That included Melnikova, who has been competing against Biles since the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
“Of course I heard [her call my name],” Melnikova said. “I was very happy to hear it, because I admire her work.”
No one knows if she’ll be back. They all seemed to understand if she doesn’t, if after all the years and all the performances and all the championships she just retires. She owes no one anything. She’s already accomplished everything.
In some ways, Melnikova wasn’t even shocked that she was competing for Simone, not against Simone. That's gymnastics.
“Anything can happen," she said. "Things happen.”
Even, or maybe especially, at the Olympics.
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