Bronze never felt like more of a win than this.
Early Tuesday morning, Simone Biles returned to competition and in the process made the women's balance beam final the most anticipated event of these Games. The athlete (which is to say: the human) with more expectation, hype, marketing and pressure attached to them -- to the point of it practically being an appendage -- at the 2020 Olympics got back on the stage.
A stage that's 3.9 inches wide.
What Biles proceeded to do was, in some ways, as admirable as any gold medal-winning routine she's ever had. It might well be, already, the most cherished of all her Olympic performances.
Biles' rendition on the balance beam was not a flawless display, but it was nonetheless a vintage showing by the greatest gymnast in history. Grace, power, fluidity, athleticism, poise. Biles intentionally dialed down her routine in order to better protect her physical welfare, but that didn't preclude her from finding the podium. Out was her usual/insanely difficult double twist, double backflip dismount -- the move, called a "Biles," is literally named after her -- and in was a (still-magnificent) double pike. Biles took bronze with a 14.000 score, repeating her third-place showing on beam from Rio in 2016.
"This definitely feels sweeter than Rio's bronze medal on beam because I did a good beam routine," Biles told the media Tuesday.
She also told NBC, "It means more than all of the golds because I've pushed through so much the last five years and the last week while I've even been here."
China's Guan Chenchen was the final gymnast to perform. She won gold with a 14.633, while her teammate, Tang Xijing, captured silver (14.233).
It's been a week since Biles stepped away from the team all-around competition to protect her mental health and save Team USA's chances at a medal. As each day passed and Biles opted out of individual event after individual event, it looked like we'd seen the last of a unique American talent in her arena. Then came Monday. The moment USA Gymnastics announced Biles would indeed compete, that's when Tuesday's beam final became the biggest event at these Games.
It also meant Biles would confront more attention, in competition, than she's ever had. Additionally, a return might mean she'd have to dance with, or dodge, a demon or three on that beam. It doesn't matter that the general public was not allowed at the Ariake Gymnastics Center. The eyes of the world were on Biles Tuesday, and she came through magnificently.
"I had nerves but I felt pretty good," Biles said after taking the bronze.
The irony is that, although beam is Biles' weakest event, it's the one that gave her the best chance at competing safely. The twisties would not be a factor because she would, mostly, not let them be involved in the routine (which is why she switched to a double-pike dismount). After a relatively shaky qualifying round, Biles entered the final with the seventh-highest score (14.066) out of the eight finalists.
She didn't have to do this for anyone, but clearly she felt good enough and healthy enough to do it for herself. That's all that matters. Her poise is all the more incredible after the fact, as Biles also revealed Tuesday that one of her aunt's unexpectedly died two days ago.
"I was just happy to be able to perform regardless of the outcome," Biles said. "I did it for me and I was proud of myself for being able to compete one more time."
For years we've equated Biles' GOAT status with her haul of gold medals, because that's what we as sports fans and pundits tend to do. Yet Tuesday's performance -- combined with the conversation from the past week about Biles' mental well-being -- partly disproved that.
Biles' standing in Olympics and gymnastics history is not, will not, only be defined by her four gold medals, none of which were won in Tokyo. You can inspire without being the best. You can win bronze, or silver, and still be a champion. Heading into the Games, it was presumed Biles would just be Biles in full and add another three, four or five more golds to her résumé. As if something like that could ever be preordained.
Instead, she didn't win any; Biles won a silver in the team all-around in addition to Tuesday's bronze. The idea that she would not win one gold was unthinkable before a week ago. Now it's sort of an oh-by-the-way. This is a good thing.
"Just to have one more opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games meant the world," Biles said. "Training for five years and then coming here, and then kind of being triggered and not being able to do anything, it wasn't fun."
Tuesday's bronze was historic, too. The achievement tied Biles with the great Shannon Miller for the most Olympic medals by a U.S. gymnast. Four of Biles' seven Olympics medals are golds, which is what elevates her to a higher tier than anyone else in the eyes of most who know gymnastics best.
Just getting to see her one more time on an Olympic stage was the reward. It would have been all too understandable if Biles ultimately decided to not compete again in Tokyo. Watch that vault attempt again from the team all-around and see what the slow-motion replay catches. Biles, coming back to earth after the most basic of launch attempts, is rattled. Her spatial cognizance failing. That truth is evident in the face. The uncertainty, the doubt, the fear. She was in danger. The mental anguish piled on top of Biles led to that moment, and the past week couldn't have been much easier.
Then Tuesday arrived, and Biles met the moment with elegance and style.
This was no coronation for her; that came in 2016. But in Tokyo she was the first woman since 1992 to qualify for every possible medal event: team all-around, individual all-around, vault, floor, uneven bars, balance beam. Not competing in all but two of those tells a bigger story, one that will probably be remembered just as much as any of her performances, and that's important.
Was Tuesday the last time we'll ever see Biles compete? She's 24, which in gymnastics is easily retirement age. Biles is such a phenomenal athlete and competitor that anything seems possible. But if Tuesday is the end, what a cathartic way to go out. Biles, on her own terms, exits with a medal that isn't gold but might be more valuable than any first-place finish.