Simone Biles has changed what it means to be an elite gymnast

On Tuesday, Simone Biles returned to Olympic competition, earning a bronze on beam. While becoming the most successful gymnast in U.S. history in medal count, she has also used her voice and power within the sport to effect actual change. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Simone Biles closed out her Olympics on her terms, as a two-time bronze medalist on beam and as the most accomplished American gymnast in history with seven medals, including four golds. Biles did not allow herself to be defined by what she did not do in Tokyo. Instead, the lasting images will be of her cheering on her teammates and competitors and returning to competition under great scrutiny and pressure to earn perhaps the final Olympic medal of her career.

"I wasn't even expecting to medal on beam," Biles said after the meet. "I was just trying to hit one more beam set. To have one more opportunity to compete at the Olympics meant the world to me."

Biles did not confirm whether she will continue to train ahead of world championships in Kitakyushu, Japan, in October, or the Paris Olympics in 2024. But no matter her decision, the foundation for Biles' remarkable legacy was laid before she ever stepped onto an Olympic competition floor and reaches far beyond her medals and accolades.

It started, perhaps, with a post about pizza.

Four months before Biles led the U.S. to team gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she posted a Boomerang on Instagram of a greasy pepperoni pizza. "Happiness," she wrote, and added a few emojis. It received more than 100,000 likes, but most people who scrolled by it likely registered it as nothing more than a teenager oversharing about her lunch.

For generations of former gymnasts, however, that post was bold. In their experiences, gymnasts were not supposed to talk (or think) about junk food or vacations or boyfriends, have lives outside of the gym or opinions they revealed in public spaces. The fear and control that surrounded the sport perpetuated silence and conformity, even for those whose leotards had long collected dust.

During my reporting for the 30 for 30 podcast series "Heavy Medals," more than one former Olympian brought up the post, unprompted, as a sign of a long overdue shift. It was defiant in its teenage mundanity, proof that Biles would not be folded and molded to fit the pretty box of a gymnast whose life was curated and controlled from morning 'til midnight.

Biles changed the archetype of what it means to be an elite gymnast.

While innovating jaw-dropping new skills and winning an astounding seven national championships, five world all-around titles and Olympic all-around gold -- all while giggling and cheering on her competitors -- she (and her coaches and support team) demonstrated a different way to win. She showed bravery in her performances, and also in her choice to share her life outside of the gym. Her prominence gave permission to other gymnasts to do the same.

"She understands how powerful her voice is, and I think it feels good," Biles' coach, Cecile Laurent, said in 2019. "It's also scary. She feels like she needs to do it for her and for the other girls."

What started as a few posts about National Pizza Day and vacations to Belize led to a January 2018 tweet that revealed Biles, too, was a survivor of sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar. She wrote that it broke her heart that she would have to return to "the same training facility where I was abused."

Three days later, USAG closed the Houston ranch facility owned by longtime U.S. coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi and cut ties with the couple. Biles' revelation, and the governing body's reaction to it, emboldened other former elites to speak up and share their truth. That train has only gained steam.

"If she weren't putting her life out there, then when she calls out what she considers an injustice on social media, it wouldn't have as big of an impact," Biles' former coach Aimee Boorman once told me. "The world listens to her because she is honest about her life. Yes, I have a boyfriend. Yes, I dress in bikinis. Yes, I think this is an injustice in the world."

All of that is backdrop to last Tuesday's team final in Tokyo. When, one rotation into the meet, Biles withdrew from the competition, gymnasts and gymnastics fans lauded her decision. Her teammates and coaches wholeheartedly supported it. They knew the danger she posed to herself and the team's potential for a medal if she continued while suffering such a severe mental block that she was becoming disoriented in the air on twisting skills. They also knew Biles would support them if the roles were reversed.

"I was 14 y/o w/ a tibial stress fracture, left alone w/ no cervical spine exam after this fall," 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu wrote on Twitter above a video of her slipping during a beam performance at the 1996 Games and landing on her head. "Simone Biles' decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health -- 'a say' I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian."

The revelations around Nassar and the mental and psychological abuse of gymnasts by coaches and the U.S. national team staff have laid bare the cost of all those gold medals. The past five years have primed the gymnastics community to cheer any gymnast who choses safety over sport, mental health over medals and team over self, especially the greatest gymnast of all time.

Because of her decision, conversations are currently taking place around the world that Biles cannot control. Casual sports fans who know nothing of her unending commitment to her sport, her teammates and a country that has failed her over and again can call her selfish or a quitter.

Then they can Google the 2018 world championships in Doha, Qatar, where she led the U.S. to its largest margin of victory in history, posted the highest scores on beam, vault and floor and performed a vault (today called the "Biles") that no woman in the world had previously completed. All while passing a kidney stone. "The kidney stone can wait," Biles posted on Twitter after an ER visit 24 hours before competition. "Doing it for my team."

Or 2018 nationals in Boston, where she won the all-around title with broken toes on both feet.

Or 2019 nationals, at which Biles won her sixth U.S. all-around title hours after breaking down in tears during a group interview in which a journalist revealed to her that a recently released congressional investigation concluded the USOPC and USAG "knowingly concealed" Nassar's abuse.

Or her masterful 2016 Olympic performance, when she won a record-tying five Olympic medals, and when it was still unknown to the world that Biles and her teammates had been molested for years by their U.S. team doctor.

Or any of the countless interviews Biles has given since 2018 calling for accountability for her and her sister survivors by USAG, the USOC and the FBI or advocating for women, Black women and foster kids.

Or how about any women's gymnastics event this past week in Tokyo. While former elites posted on social media about their own harrowing experiences competing with injuries and when they knew they were a danger to themselves, Biles resisted the pressure to compete before she was ready. Instead, she sat in the crowd and loudly cheered her teammates as they shined in her absence. She waited until after competition ended to reveal how difficult the past week has been for her. "It's not easy giving up on a dream of five years," Biles said after beam finals.

When she returned to competition Tuesday, she was not a favorite to win gold on beam. She downgraded her dismount from a double-twisting double tuck to a double pike out of caution. And when she landed, smiled and grabbed her heart in relief, she showed that being the greatest of all time is about more than medals.

For decades, gymnasts did not believe they had agency over their bodies and decision-making. They did not believe they had a voice. They did not believe, if they used their voices, that they would be heard. They spent the years after retiring from the sport healing from the trauma they endured. So, to watch an elite gymnast -- the elite gymnast -- make the choice Biles made in real time and on the sport's greatest stage was remarkable. She changed the game again.

She demonstrated that if there is a cultural shift taking place within the sport of gymnastics, it is coming from the athletes. It is being led by the athletes. And that moment, as much as anything, cements Simone Biles' legacy as the greatest of all time.