Credit: USA Gymnastics photo

Perhaps no athlete arrived in Tokyo with more hype than gymnast Simone Biles. She has already cemented her position as the greatest of all time in her sport, and the Olympics were to be her ultimate coronation. Biles and her U.S. teammates were also expected to deliver another team gold medal. That’s a lot of pressure on athletes who had their training interrupted due to the pandemic and haven’t had many opportunities to compete during these 18 months.

While USA Gymnastics no doubt tried to duplicate the Olympic atmosphere as much as possible, taking part in such a high stakes competition in an unfamiliar environment is challenging. The team, including Biles, looked a bit off in the qualifying round, finishing second to the Russia Olympic Committee.

“Competing with no fans, you’re not able to feed off the energy from the crowd,” said Umme Salim-Beasley, head women’s gymnastics coach at Rutgers University. “As college coaches, that’s something we did all year and prepared our teams for, but we have tons of teammates to create that noise. With an [Olympic] team of four and two additional, it’s kind of hard to create the energy.

“It seems there were quite a bit of nerves for them,” she added. “This year, the team didn’t have a whole lot of meets to be able to get practice. You have to be in that competitive mindset and be able to feel the pressure, so you know how to handle it when you’re in a higher stage.”

Scores from qualifying are thrown out and the teams started from scratch for the team final on Tuesday. The challenge intensified when Biles withdrew from the competition after the vault. She later revealed that the pressure of being the best of all-time created a level of mental stress that compelled her to step away. Her status for the remainder of the Olympics was uncertain when this story went to press. The rest of the U.S. team, Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum, stepped up, securing the silver medal behind ROC.

Athletes were not able to bring friends and family to Tokyo for the Games. In a setting like the Olympics, athletes accustomed to having loving faces in the crowd may be unsettled.

“It’s a lot of preparation when you’re taking a team into an environment that they’re not really used to,” said Salim-Beasley. “Of course, you want athletes to be able to adjust to any circumstance, but this is drastically different.”

The all-around is today. Apparatus finals begin on Sunday. Biles qualified for all these events. Should she compete, she will try to add to her impressive medal count.