Simone Biles more than earned the right to win a medal for herself

She could have booked a flight back home to Texas and drawn the shades or slipped off to some island resort much farther afield – you know, the kind of place where Melinda Gates hunkers down before the divorce filing hits the news.

But in the week since withdrawing from the Olympic gymnastics team final to protect her physical and mental health – a brave decision made against the backdrop of unhinged takes from people who couldn’t attempt a cartwheel – the transcendent Simone Biles didn’t just tarry at the Tokyo Games. She hung around the Ariake Gymnastics Centre to cheer on her USA teammates. She hopped on Instagram to break down the “twisties,” that out-of-body experience that suddenly made her feel so lost while spinning in the air and so fearful she wouldn’t land firmly on her feet. “For anyone saying I quit,” Biles wrote. ”I didn’t quit.”

She looked for all the world like a woman who could not be cowed. And then just when her many detractors thought she was out for good, she pulled herself back in.

On the final day of the Games’ artistic gymnastics program, Biles made a triumphant return in the individual balance beam final, winning bronze. Like her past routines, this one was the usual alloy of mesmerizing grace, mind-boggling strength and stupefying complexity. The only twist was in the landing, where a coiling somersault was replaced with a more conservative double pike. This switch meant Biles’s routine would be assigned a lower degree of difficulty – a tough blow for a gymnast known for setting an impossibly high bar.

But this time when she touched down from the beam, she didn’t look scared or small. She looked like her smiling, swaggering old self again. That alone was worth celebrating.

“I wasn’t expecting to walk away with a medal,” she said afterwards. “I was just doing this for me, and what happens, happens.”

In the end her routine wasn’t the finest ever or even judged to be the finest on Tuesday. But that doesn’t make what she did any less awe-inspiring. Some gymnasts never recover from the twisties. Biles had to wrestle with those disorienting feelings and the prospect of letting down her panoply of admirers, and the outsized expectations that attend her status as the GOAT of her sport and the unexpected death of an aunt. She would have been within her right to dismiss her singular balancing act as too heavy and retreat onto her own island of shame. But by hopping back on the beam and delivering one last near flawless effort in the unrelenting glare of the Olympic spotlight, Biles not only proved strong enough to win bronze. She showed once again she’s made of sterner stuff.

Biles’s bronze doesn’t just equal her accomplishment in Rio. It gives her the same number of Olympic medals as Shannon Miller, the (now joint) most decorated American gymnast in the history of the Games. To hear Biles tell it, there was no reaching that rarified distinction without first getting into the headspace. In addition to daily evaluations, she said she submitted to twice-daily counseling sessions. All the while she concentrated all her training on the beam; at the last minute, she made the shift to the somersault landing – “which I probably have not done since I was 12 years old because I’ve always twisted off probably since I was 13,” she said.

As comebacks go, Biles’s at least belongs on the same well-worn highlight reel with Kerri Strug’s golden vault in the 1996 – if only to illustrate how dramatically Biles has transformed gymnastics during her too-brief rule. Whereas a teenage Strug was trotted back into competition on a busted ankle by her coaches to rally the Americans to victory in the all-around, a 24-year-old Biles said, To hell with that mess.

She remembered that the last word on her health doesn’t belong to USA Gymnastics – which, for some far-flung reason, she continues to represent and make millions for even after as she and hundreds of other gymnasts were abused by its top physician, Larry Nassar. And Biles remembered she doesn’t work for the self-styled patriots who calls her an egotist for doing the most basic of self-care – something more athletes could stand to do, by the way.

“I think [mental health] should be talked a lot more, especially with athletes,” she said after winning bronze. “At the end of the day, we’re not just entertainment. We’re humans, and there are things going on behind the scenes that we’re also trying to juggle with as well as on top of sports.”

But most of all Biles remembered that she doesn’t owe anybody anything. Not her sponsors. Not her country. And certainly not some celebrity-obsessed TV network. She didn’t have to retake the beam to uplift her gender, empower survivors or be a credit to her race. After years of putting her needs last, finally, she got to perform for the hell of it, for the fun of it – for her own pure satisfaction. To those who will undoubtedly and ludicrously criticize this as the ultimate act of entitlement? At least she can say she more than earned that right.

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