By Christy Sandmaier

Today at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre, the trending Olympic theme – #UnitedByEmotion – was never more apparent. A final goodbye, a final salute. A final look into the stands for these athletes. The anticipation is over, the medals have been awarded, and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will forever be etched into our minds and hearts.

Camaraderie and sportsmanship have also been on full display, framing the Games in full light and celebration of what these athletes have accomplished, and how they respect their sport and each other to the fullest extent. The performances we saw today – and throughout these nine days – were outstanding in difficulty, form, technique, sheer strength, showmanship and artistry – all of the amazing traits we love about our sport and expect from the athletes each time they compete. And on this final day of artistic gymnastics, the stars came to play.

Earlier this week, Simone Biles (USA) pulled out of both the Team Final and the All-Around to focus on her mental health. Opening up on Instagram after an unusually shaky prelims, Biles first gave an indication that she was feeling the pressure of “the weight of the world on my shoulders.” After team finals, she discussed dealing with the “twisties” and said, “I didn’t quit… my mind and body are simply not in sync.” Putting her safety first, Biles would also withdraw from event finals on vault, bars and floor. But today, the balance beam was there, waiting for her. And she rose to the occasion. Many on social media noted they were in tears of joy seeing her return. 

Olympic gold medal swimmer Simone Manuel tweeting, “SIMONE BILES *all the applause* So awesome to see you back up there! You have so much to be proud of! Your resilience is so inspiring!” 

And so, in what was perhaps the most anticipated and most-watched moment of the Games to date, we saw Biles return to the competition floor with confidence and resilience, a smile detected through her mask as she marched into the arena. And while she had nothing to prove to anyone today, she rose to the ultimate challenge on the world’s largest stage on a beam four inches wide. With her team and the world behind her, she hit. Her hand over her heart as she came down from the podium to cheers heard inside the arena and around the world. 

The routine itself overall was smooth (triple wolf turn, back handspring layout step out layout step out, switch leap to switch half, back pike, side aerial) with just one slight balance check, and she finished with a double pike for a 14.000. In the end it was bronze, tying her with Shannon Miller for the most medals ever won in an Olympic Games by a U.S. woman in gymnastics. 

“I hope it sends [the message] that first I did this for me and nobody else because I really wanted to compete one more time at the Olympic Games,” Biles said afterwards via the Olympic Channel. “It’s not easy giving up a dream of five years and not getting to do it. It was really, really hard… to have one more opportunity to compete meant the world.”

Seeing her smile back (and her teammate Sunisa Lee, the 2020 All-Around Champion, jump higher than anyone for her) was everything. It was the most picture perfect moment imaginable in a Games she was expected by some, to win six golds. Just by stepping on the podium today, she has forever distinguished herself not for what she has accomplished but for who she is. The fight she showed just to return to the final was an incredible achievement and a true testament to the Olympic motto – Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger.

1984 Olympic silver and bronze medalist Kathy Johnson Clarke tweeted: “Simone, you have thrilled us with out-of-this-world gymnastics and made us smile, laugh, jump for joy and out of our seats, but that tough and tenacious beam routine was EVERYTHING! You should have it bronzed! Oh wait, you did! I am over-the-moon happy for you.” 

Indeed, this is your Olympic moment, Simone. The shiniest and most meaningful. And the one we’ll remember most of all.

Guan ChenChen (CHN), the top qualifier (14.933) coming in the competition on beam, performed beautifully for gold. Slight breaks in connections lowered her score to 14.633 today but overall, what she showed was breathtaking, skill after skill. Each one navigated to near perfection. Her teammate, Tang Xijing set the standard in the rotation scoring a 14.233 as the second athlete up and won silver. For a team that struggled in the early competitions here, what a performance it was for these two outstanding athletes.

Just prior to the final, Larisa Iordache (ROU) withdrew, stating on social media: “I tried and hoped until the last moment for this Olympic final… this pain in my ankle that I feel is above my limit as a human being… for now I’ll take a break and I will start again when I’m fully prepared…” 

It was a heartbreak for Iordache, the 2014 World All-Around silver medalist, to be sure, but the fight she showed in her journey just to get to these Games, is something to behold. In a career full of successes, but plagued with injuries and the weight of the Romanian gymnastics program on her shoulders, Iordache fought through a severe kidney infection at the European Championships in April just to win her spot to the Games. Although Tokyo certainly didn’t go as planned, Iordache’s career has touched our hearts with her true champion’s spirit, forward focus and unwavering determination.

On men’s parallel bars, Zou Jingyuan (CHN) went second, hitting an out-of-this-world 16.233 for gold as the second man up. His beautiful and difficult work is in another dimension across the board and he has set the standard for years to come. Lukas Dauser (15.700) of Germany took silver, and in continuing the tradition of “firsts” we’ve seen in the event finals at these Games, Ferhat Arican (15.633) of Turkey won bronze, his country’s first Olympic medal. Arican’s tears following the medal ceremony as he was able to see and share this moment with his family virtually in the arena, told the story of his Games.

For the U.S. Men, Sam Mikulak performed his final routine in the Olympic Games and he says of his career. The routine itself was one of his best ever, with just a small hop on the landing. Mikulak, a six-time U.S. National All-Around Champion forever has his place in history as one of the best male gymnasts the United States has ever had. The smile on his face was evident of his long journey to Tokyo and the satisfaction he finally feels competing for himself and for his team. It wasn’t about his sixth place finish, it was about being here and enjoying the moment.

Men’s All-Around Champion Hashimoto Daiki (JPN) came into the high bar final as the man to beat. As the second to last athlete up, he performed his set to near perfection with a super stuck landing, the athletes and delegations present in the Ariake erupting in cheers. A 15.066 and it was gold for Japan. Tin Srbic (CRO) won silver with a 14.9, and Nikita Nagornyy (ROC) who helped lead his team to gold earlier in the Games, captured bronze with a 14.533, his first individual medal. 

Brody Malone also proved once again he’s ready to take the reins for Team USA, fighting through his routine and finishing fourth in the final. For Malone, the Road to Paris 2024 officially starts now.

Of note, the Event Finals format that does not allow for a one-touch warm-up on the competition equipment will be a big point of discussion following these Games (more to come on that!).

At the end of the day, hearing the Japanese national anthem as the final official moment in the Ariake was truly special, and Hashimoto has delighted us with his performances here. Earlier in the week, he said he wanted to lead the new generation of gymnasts in Japan. With two gold medals and a team silver, the future has never been brighter. 

As a new Olympic chapter is written, new storylines sealed and new stars shine, we will long remember Tokyo 2020 for each athlete’s journey, not their final results. After all, it’s what they’ll remember long after the torch is dimmed in Tokyo, so we should, too. Ultimately, the spirit of the Games prevailed. Athletes rose to the occasion in their support of each other and in their performances, showing the world some of the most incredible moments the sport has ever seen.

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Photos by Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics

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