TOKYO – Suni Lee and her teammates couldn't believe what they were hearing. At the Olympic Games, after their first event of the team finals in women's gymnastics, Simone Biles — their leader, their engine and their star — told them she was withdrawing.
Lee, of St. Paul, was in tears. "We honestly didn't know what to do in that moment," Lee said. "Like, she's freaking Simone Biles. She carries the team, basically. So when we had to step up to the plate and do what we had to do, it was very hard and stressful."
But not impossible. Lee, Grace McCallum of Isanti and Jordan Chiles shook off their nerves Tuesday and won a silver medal for the U.S., pulling together after Biles' sudden, shocking decision. Lee contributed a knockout uneven bars routine, scoring a 15.400 — the highest bars score at these Olympics so far — and a 13.666 on floor exercise. McCallum was steady as usual, on a night that required quick adjustments and cool heads.
Lee posted the top U.S. scores on bars, floor and balance beam, even though she wasn't originally scheduled to perform on floor and hadn't warmed up. Chiles stepped in on bars with just a few minutes' notice.
Biles explained after the competition that she "wasn't in a good head space,'' and she didn't want to get injured or hurt the team's score. When she discussed her decision with the media late Tuesday night, she began to cry, and her teammates enveloped her in a group hug. USA Gymnastics later announced Biles' decision to withdraw from the final individual all-around competition.
Russia won the gold with a score of 169.528, 3.43 points ahead of the Americans. Great Britain was two points back in third place. It marked the first time in 11 years the U.S. did not win the gold medal in an Olympics or world championship team competition.
"There were definitely a lot of emotions going through all of our heads," Lee said. "It's very hard to lose a teammate, especially at the Olympic Games.
"We were very stressed and put a lot of pressure on ourselves. But I'm really proud we did what we needed to do."
Of course, Biles isn't just any teammate. McCallum, Lee and Chiles regard her as an idol and a mentor, as well as the greatest gymnast of all time. A four-time Olympic gold medalist, Biles, 24, also was the veteran helping guide three first-time Olympians.
With Biles watching from the sidelines, Lee needed to get a big score on bars to stay close to the Russians. She tried her hardest set, with a 6.8 difficulty score, and knew right away it was good. The 15.400 was the highest mark Tuesday on any event.
All three hit their beam routines, cutting the margin between the U.S. and the Russians to 8/10ths of a point with one event to go. "We fought to the end," McCallum said. "I couldn't be more proud."
The final score sheet showed just how important the two Minnesotans were to holding the team in second place. After Biles bowed out, Lee logged the top U.S. scores on the three remaining events, and McCallum was second-best for Team USA in two. Lee will get more opportunities for medals in three event finals in the coming days: all-around, uneven bars and balance beam.
Tuesday, the Americans couldn't rise to the gold, but they hung on to the silver.
"They never gave up," Biles said. "They just showed the world what they're capable of."