TOKYO (Reuters) – The discussion coming into the Tokyo Olympics was never about whether U.S. gymnast Simone Biles would win gold, but how many times.
The assumption was she would not only add to her Rio haul of four gold medals, but potentially land another six to make her the most decorated female in Olympic history.
It quickly became clear on the first day of competition on Sunday that something was not quite right.
Biles, 24, began qualifying by flying off the mat with both feet at the end of one tumbling pass during her floor exercise.
Such was the degree of difficulty of her routine that she still earned the second-highest score on the apparatus, but it was an uncharacteristic blip.
Biles finished with the top mark in the vault but was then wobbly and unconvincing on the beam.
It was even worse on the uneven bars, where she finished a lowly 10th but sneaked into the final as the second American because of the “two through” rule that limits gymnasts to two from each country.
Shortly after qualifying, Biles posted a photo of herself in her leotard with a pensive face.
“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard.”
The pressure continued to build going into Tuesday’s final, where she was widely expected to snag her first gold in the women’s team event.
Biles’s competition got off to a bad start on the vault in the first rotation with a disappointing score of 13.766. All three Russians scored higher, as did her U.S. team mates.
Stunned and close to tears, Biles – a gold medal winner on the vault at the Rio Olympics – sat dejected in a chair as coaches and team mates surrounded her before moving onto the uneven bars, the U.S. sitting second 1.067 behind the Russians.
As the rest of the team moved on, Biles put on a tracksuit and an “R” appeared next to her name in the official results list, indicating she was no longer involved in the competition.
Without her, the United States went on to finish second behind the Russian Olympic Committee, with Biles still collecting a silver medal for being part of the team.
“I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to,” she later told reporters on the sidelines of the arena. “I don’t know if it’s age. I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics.”
Fighting back tears, the champion gymnast opened up about the pressure she felt.
“I feel like I’m also not having as much fun. I know that this Olympic Games I want it to be for myself. I came in and it felt like I was still doing it for other people, so that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber; Editing by Leela de Kretser and Ken Ferris)