People Magazine was prepared to run a Simone Biles cover no matter what – they already had the interviews with Biles and her family locked and loaded before the Tokyo Olympics, and People Mag probably thought they would run this cover with Simone clutching five Olympic gold medals and an “America’s Sweetheart” headline. But things changed. Simone was away from her family for the first time ever during a major competition. She felt the weight of being “the face” of the Olympics. In her early practices in Tokyo, stuff wasn’t coming together. Last week, Simone became a major headline around the world when she pulled out of competition because of her mental health, and because of “the twisties.” So People Mag rewrote their cover story and it’s even more inspirational.
People around Simone were worried about how she’d handle the ‘no fans’ thing: “Simone is ready. She’s physically, mentally ready. She’s excited and she wants to do it,” her coach Cecile Landi told PEOPLE on July 14, just hours before the team’s flight to Tokyo in July. “But I’m a little bit worried about the no fans. We were hoping the Japanese public was allowed. Simone was hoping so too. That’s the only thing we are a little worried about: how are you going to handle it when you walk in and there’s nobody.”
Her mother Nellie: They shared a “tough” goodbye in Texas, knowing that for the first time she wouldn’t be in the crowd waving to her daughter. “She always knows where we are sitting, it doesn’t matter the arena. If she’s in a competition, she’ll look and I’ll wave and we make a connection,” Nellie said before the Games began. “It’s going to be different because she thrives on the noise. The more you cheer, the better she feels about herself.”
The struggles: “I’m looking forward to competing after the crazy year, the hard year we’ve all had,” Biles told PEOPLE before the games. “I want to bring entertainment.” But just 10 days after arriving in Tokyo, as the team began qualifying rounds, it became clear to Biles that something wasn’t right. She stumbled on her floor routine. That night, she wrote on Instagram: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.” Days later, she couldn’t execute on the vault and pulled herself out of the team competition, later explaining that she was suffering from the twisties — a lack of air awareness — and needed to focus on her mental health.
The cheerleader: In that moment, Biles gave up her hopes of besting her four gold and one bronze medal count from Rio in 2016, but she became something more than an Olympic champion. In the stands, she was chief cheerleader for her team, which went on to win silver. “I know how hard it is for her to stand on the sidelines because that’s not who she is,” teammate Grace McCallum told PEOPLE. “So having her cheering us on meant a lot.”
Standing up for herself: And for millions around the world, she became a hero for standing up for herself — a skill she says she’s worked on the past few years. “The biggest part of my growth journey has been finding my own voice and speaking up for what I believe in,” she told PEOPLE before the games.
Winning bronze: It took courage to step back and it took courage to return to compete on the balance beam, the one apparatus that she didn’t win gold on in 2016. “At the end of the day, we’re not just entertainment,” she told reporters after her bronze medal finish on the beam, “We’re human.”
Before she pulled out of group competition, my big concern for Simone was how she would do without her extended support system, her parents, her boyfriend and her full Texas team. I think that was a huge factor, and who knows what would have happened if Simone could have had her parents, boyfriend and friends there to hug and talk to and check in with. I have so much admiration for everything she did and said during the games though, from diagnosing herself with the twisties and fully disclosing what was happening to her mentally and emotionally, and staying around to support her teammates and allowing them to shine – it ended up being a different kind of heartwarming story.
Photos courtesy of Avalon Red, cover courtesy of People.