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Simone Biles makes courageous return to Olympics by winning bronze on balance beam

USA's Simone Biles competes in the artistic gymnastics

USA's Simone Biles competes in the artistic gymnastics women's balance beam final of the Tokyo Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on August 3, 2021. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/JEFF PACHOUD

She could have just flown home.

Simone Biles could have left Tokyo after her stunning withdrawal during last week’s team competition. She didn’t need to stick around and cheer on her teammates from the stands. She didn’t need to stay in the public eye and face critic after critic, who questioned her dedication to her country and her sport.

Most of all, after all she had gone through, she didn’t have to put herself out there again Tuesday — especially not on a four-inch-wide piece of wood where one wrong move could have proved disastrous.

But she did. After sitting event after event that she had once dominated — the all-around, the vault, the floor exercise — Biles returned on the final day of gymnastics competition and performed well enough on the balance beam to earn a bronze medal. Biles, using a double-pike dismount that required no twisting, finished behind the Chinese duo of gold medalist Guan Chenchen and Tang Xijing.

After cleanly landing her dismount, Biles clapped her hands and put her hand to her heart to acknowledge the cheers from teammates, officials and opponents, many of whom were standing and cheering. By winning her seventh career Olympic medal, Biles became the most decorated U.S. gymnast ever.

Yes, Biles gave us a great Olympic moment. It wasn’t the one we expected, yet it may be the one that comes to define these Olympics and how we view the win-at-all-costs mentality and the toll it takes on our athletic heroes.

This was supposed to be the Simone Biles Olympics and it was. Just not in the way it had been scripted. Instead of taking home a fistful of gold medals, Biles wrote her own narrative and has given us the ultimate story of perseverance.

"I wasn't expecting to walk away with a medal, I was just going out there to do this for me and whatever happens, happens," Biles said after the competition, adding that it "just meant the world to be back out there."

The medal comes a week after Biles dropped out of the team event, citing an inability to perform because of mental stress and lack of air awareness, aka "the twisties." Biles had the courage to speak up and tell the world that it was OK to not be OK, that it was important to put yourself and your mental health first.

In so many ways, it’s hard to imagine the courage it took to do something like this on the world’s biggest stage in a sport where top athletes, including Biles, have been physically, emotionally and, most tragically, sexually abused over the years. Gymnasts routinely perform with injuries and are expected to push their bodies to the absolute limit. Their food intake is so monitored that it is almost considered a transgressive act to tweet about loving pepperoni pizza.

Biles, 24, has been the ultimate ambassador for her sport since winning four gold medals in Rio in 2016. She was the only gymnast in Tokyo to publicly acknowledge that she had been abused by sexual predator Larry Nassar. In doing so, she bravely joined others in sending the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics to prison for up to 175 years.

Perhaps no athlete has been as hyped up as Biles was heading into the Olympics. She was hailed as the greatest of all time, a designation that after a while had to prove exhausting. Biles was expected to come home with a fistful of gold medals and instead will return home with a single bronze.

Yet, she said it is the most meaningful achievement of her career, considering all she went through to get it.

"It means more than all of the golds because I pushed through so much the last five years and the last week while I’ve even been here," Biles said Tuesday on the "Today" show. " . . . At the end of the day, we’re not just athletes or entertainment. We’re human too."

Humans with problems and challenges like everyone else. Biles reminded the world of that this week. That will be her greatest legacy.

New York Sports