TOKYO — Simone Biles came to the Tokyo Olympics as the greatest gymnast the sport has ever seen, and she leaves that way, too.
It does not matter that she did not become the first woman in more than a half-century to repeat as Olympic champion. Or that, projected to win a record five gold medals, she won none. It is irrelevant that she did only six routines. Or that she did not get yet another skill named after her.
Yes, Biles’ withdrawal from the team competition one event in, and her subsequent absence from the all-around and the first three event finals before returning to win a bronze on balance beam, will be part of her legacy. But it does nothing to diminish what she has done as a gymnast – and only enhances who she is as a human.
"I kind of felt embarrassed with myself," Biles said Tuesday night after winning that beam bronze, her seventh Olympic medal overall. "Especially when we went to the (Olympic) Village and everybody was coming up to me and saying how much I meant and how much I’d done for them.
"I was crying in the Olympic store because I just wasn’t expecting that."
Biles cemented her status as the best gymnast ever with her performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Already a three-time world champion who hadn’t lost a competition in three years, she won four gold medals in Rio, joining Katie Ledecky for most behind that guy named Michael Phelps. She beat teammate Aly Raisman in the all-around by more than two points – in a sport normally decided by decimal points.
Had Biles retired then, her name would have been etched alongside Nadia and Mary Lou’s, icons who conjure memories of the sport’s most defining moments.
Instead, she now stands in a class by herself. Over the past 3½ years, she has transformed gymnastics, and her impact will be felt long after she has retired.
Biles is the most decorated gymnast, male or female, at the world championships with 25 medals, 19 of them gold. At the 2018 worlds, she collected a medal on all six events, the first woman in 30 years to accomplish the feat.
More impressive is that she has pushed the boundaries of the sport beyond what anyone could have imagined. She has had three skills named after her since 2018 – one each on vault, balance beam and floor exercise – and in May became the first woman to do the Yurchenko double pike in competition. (It is not yet named for her because she has to do it at a world championships, Olympics or World Cup.)
“It’s so cool to be able to do what she does,” Nadia Comaneci told USA TODAY Sports before Tokyo. “Mentally I can think about how to do that. But to do that? … Maybe on a trampoline some people can do that.”
Gymnastics is constantly evolving, especially since the open-ended scoring system began in 2006. But Biles is not moving the sport forward in small steps. She is revolutionary, elevating skills that have not progressed in decades.
For example, the double-twisting, double somersault dismount Biles debuted on beam in 2019 is the next progression of the full-in, a double somersault with one full twist.
The full-in was first done in 1980, 17 years before Biles was even born.
“She is one of the most talented athletes I’ve ever seen,” skateboard legend Tony Hawk, who pushed his sport into the extreme, vertical era and inspired today’s tricks-based skating.
“Her precision and consistency are unmatched, but it’s her desire to keep pushing her limits (and the limits of gymnastics) that I admire the most.”
Even before Tokyo, any discussion about Biles’ legacy was incomplete if it did not include her impact outside gymnastics.
She has acknowledged being one of the hundreds of girls and young women sexually abused by Larry Nassar, and her mere presence keeps a very large and bright spotlight on USA Gymnastics’ efforts to change the toxic and abusive culture that allowed Nassar to avoid detection. She has been unafraid to celebrate her own accomplishments, wanting to send the message to little girls – particularly Black and brown girls – that it’s OK to own their achievements.
“I think that is a good example, for young kids to know that it's OK to embrace who you are and what you've achieved. There's no shame in that,” skier Lindsey Vonn told USA TODAY Sports. “I kind of wish that I had done that in my career, but I was kind of always told that you're never supposed to talk about your success, you always have other people talk about it for you.”
But it is Biles’ withdrawal from the team competition in Tokyo, and her subsequent decisions to skip the all-around, vault, uneven bars and floor exercise finals, that has prompted the general public to look at mental health – and, more importantly, the consequences of not prioritizing it – in a way that's never really been done.
Other athletes – Michael Phelps and Kevin Love come to mind – have sounded warning bells on mental health. But it is one thing to hear about the dangers of not treating it like you would a physical injury, and quite another to see Biles be willing to take a step back from the world's biggest stage to protect her health and well-being.
Rising anxiety has brought on a case of “the twisties,” a condition in which Biles has lost her sense of air awareness. As a result, she has no idea if she will land upright, on her head or somewhere in between.
“How mature is that?” Annie Heffernon, vice president of the women’s program for USA Gymnastics, said after the team final. “She knew exactly what she needed to do when she needed to do it.”
And Biles had the courage to actually do it, when it would have been so much easier to swallow the emotions, put her head down and push forward.
"My problem was why my body and my mind weren’t in sync. That’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around," Biles said. "What happened? Was I overtired? Where did the wires not connect? That was really hard.
"I trained my whole life, I was physically ready, I was fine. And then this happens," Biles said. "It was something that was so out of my control. But the outcome I had -- at the end of the day, my mental and physical health is better than any medal."
The impact of that message will last for decades, resonating with the public in a way no athletic achievement can.
Exaggerated as it might sound, by doing what she did in Tokyo, Biles has saved lives.
She let the world know that it’s OK to not be OK, and that it’s more important to take care of yourself than to try and deliver on somebody else’s expectations. There will come a day, if it hasn’t already occurred, when someone will be hurting and in a dark place, and it will be the example Biles set that pulls them through.
“The biggest thing is we all need to ask for help sometimes,” Phelps said in an interview with NBC. “For me, I can say personally, it’s something that was very challenging. It was hard for me to ask for help. I felt like I was carrying, as (Biles) said, the weight of the world on my shoulders.
“I hope this is an eye-opening experience, I really do,” Phelps added. “It is so much bigger than we could even ever imagine.”
The same could be said of Biles' legacy, in gymnastics and beyond.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Simone Biles' Olympics legacy exceeds medals and mental health