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What Simone Biles learned from Tokyo Olympics: 'How courageous, how brave I am'

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ROSEMONT, Ill. — It took being at her lowest and most vulnerable to show Simone Biles how strong and resilient she is.

It’s been almost three months since Biles was forced to withdraw from multiple events at the Tokyo Olympics after rising anxiety manifested itself in the “twisties,” causing her to lose her sense of where she was in the air. She’s still processing it all – that it happened, the reaction to it – but a few things are clear.

“I feel like I learned the most about myself during Tokyo,” Biles told USA TODAY Sports on Sunday. “How courageous, how brave I am. Because I always like to fake bravery. But I really think that solidified me being brave, speaking up for myself and just putting myself first.

“A lot of things that I would have never experienced or believed in as much … if that experience didn't happen.”

After withdrawing from the all-around, vault and floor exercise finals in Tokyo, Biles returned for the balance beam final – it was the only event she could do without a twisting element – and won a bronze medal. It wasn’t the result or experience she wanted; she came to the Olympics having not lost an all-around competition in eight years, and was a heavy favorite to win multiple gold medals.

But her decision to withdraw sparked wider conversations about mental health, particularly among elite athletes. People who had never before shared their struggles opened up, and many thanked Biles for showing that not only was it OK to prioritize herself and her mental health, sometimes it’s absolutely necessary.

“Even now, I got my nails done today, and the girl who checked me in was like, 'Oh my gosh, you’re Simone Biles. Thank you so much for what you've done,’ ” Biles said. “It just really warms my heart to know that I can help these people, and that they don't have to suffer in silence anymore.”

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Biles wants these kinds of conversations to be normalized – and not only for adults.

She had thought as far back as 2015 that she wanted to have her own post-Olympics gymnastics tour, and she knew she wanted it to be different than the one USA Gymnastics had always done. Initially, that meant adding dancers and LED boards, and creating a story line that would encourage confidence in young girls.

After Tokyo, however, Biles knew the message needed to go deeper.

There’s a number in the show, the Gold Over America Tour, in which Biles sits in the middle of the floor listening to audio clips about her in Tokyo and the words, “I should be fine” flash on the video board. When the dancers come out, they’re wearing sweatshirts that say, “Your anxiety is lying to you.”

Another number is set to Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself,” which has this chorus:

“Gonna love myself, no, I don’t need anybody else.”

“Because of Tokyo, we got to integrate a lot more feelings and emotion into it and kind of – I wouldn't say normalize it, but at least bring those conversations to the forefront,” Biles said. “To let people know that we go through these things as top elite athletes around the world, and it's something that we can all get through together and that it's going to be OK.”

The show’s target audience is young girls, and these messages are set against the backdrop of fast-paced choreography, flashy video, (mostly) upbeat songs and watered-down gymnastics. Biles knows an 8-year-old isn’t going to leave the show saying, “I need to stand up for myself!”

But the hope is that it plants the seed, helping to inspire confidence and preventing the next generation of women from going through what Biles has.

“It's really important to instill that confidence and those character traits in them at a young age so, growing up, they feel more comfortable and confident to speak out about certain things that they're going with or dealing with,” Biles said. “I know that their parents understand it a little bit more, too. …  After the show, a lot of them do little videos like, 'What did you take away from the show?‘ and the kids are actually very intelligent. They’re like, 'You can be yourself! Don't give up! and I'm it!’

“I think they take the message pretty well.”

It’s a good reminder for her, as well.

Biles is a master at compartmentalizing her emotions; she became the greatest gymnast her sport has ever seen despite spending part of her childhood in foster care and being one of the hundreds of women abused by Larry Nassar. While she wanted nothing more than to just move on after Tokyo, she quickly realized when the tour began last month that it wouldn’t be so easy.

“Those first couple of shows, I felt those emotions and it was – I wouldn't say it was hard to do, but I definitely felt like I had to relive some of that,” Biles said.

The positive response to the tour has helped, she said. She’s also resumed therapy, which she had stopped when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“I was really nervous and I wanted to cancel,” Biles said, laughing, about the initial session last week. “It went OK and, afterwards, it was a weight off my shoulders. I feel a little bit more comfortable moving forward.”

As for what else is in her future, Biles isn’t sure. She’s looking forward to spending time with her family and friends after the tour ends Nov. 7. She knows she wants to keep driving the conversation about mental health.

She hasn’t ruled out a return for Paris in 2024, and has talked with coaches Cecile and Laurent Landi about it. But they’ve told her she needs to take at least a year off, as she did after the Rio de Janeiro Games.

“Tokyo wasn't the one that I wanted, but I think it meant more to me that I had an experience like that. It brought out like the strength and the courage in me. So I'm not sure,” Biles said.

“At the beginning, I just wanted to do college gymnastics and now I've been to five worlds, two Olympic Games. So I’ve definitely accomplished more than my wildest dreams,” she added. “If it had to end after this, I would have no regrets.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.