After weeks—and, really, months and maybe even years— of anticipation, with the only remaining question being just how many gold medals she would take home, Simone Biles removed herself from the discussion that everyone thought they would be having and promptly landed at the center of an entirely different and extremely important conversation.
The stories chronicling her unbelievable journey and breaking down her gravity-defying moves were still hot off the presses (or the “publish” button) when Biles realized a week ago—literally while she was mid-air — that she just couldn’t go on .
Expected to lead her four-woman squad to team gold on July 27, then capture her second straight all-around gold, and then dominate on the vault, the floor and probably on balance beam and maybe even on her dreaded uneven bars as well, Biles instead experienced what’s sure to go down as one of the most memorable suddenly-everywhere terms of 2021: “A little bit of the twisties.”
Akin to what’s known as “the yips” in sports such as baseball and golf, technically a wrist-control problem but also encompassing a sudden case of an athlete not being physically (or mentally) able to do what they’ve done countless times, the “twisties” are caused by a disconnect between mind and body. Biles lost her bearings in the air while attempting her Amanar vault and, instead of executing two and a half twists, she did one and a half and took a huge wobbly step backward upon landing, obviously unsteady as she almost dropped to her knees.
“You get lost in the air, you don’t know where you are, you don’t know where the ground is, you don’t know how many times you’re twisting, and you can’t control how many times you’re twisting,” Jordyn Wieber , a member of the team gold-winning “Fierce Five” at the 2012 London Olympics, explained the concept to TIME , noting that it happens to every gymnast at some point. “That’s the best way to describe it. It’s really scary. If you open up and land incorrectly, it’s really, really dangerous.”
Biles said that she was experiencing it during practice on all four apparatuses before the finals, a foreign experience for her.
And to her credit, she has always made it easy to forget that one wrong move, one misjudged leap, one blip in her concentration could result in a disaster that would scar an already bruised and battered sport forevermore.
Because as you may have been reminded over the past week, these gymnasts’ lives are on the line. Sure, they’re consummate professionals, the best in the world at what they do, but accidents happen.
And combine the inherent physical risk with the pressure that develops in any competitive sport at the highest levels, the expectations that come from within, from the media, fans, sponsors, and even from well-meaning loved ones who’ve perhaps rerouted the family dynamic around one member’s training…
“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” Biles wrote after the team’s surprise second-place finish in qualifying behind the Russian Olympic Committee on July 25. “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha!”
Two days later, the 24-year-old GOAT turned into a human being.
At the end of the first rotation in the team final, Biles received a 13.766 for a vault on which she normally scores upward of 15.
But no one knew why at first. Bewildered NBC commentators John Roethlisberger and Bridget Sloan —who 30 seconds beforehand had been as enthusiastic as anybody at Biles’ prospects for a glorious night—noted the uncharacteristic result.
Roethlisberger, a three-time Olympian with the U.S. men’s gymnastics team, said, “I think, to outsiders looking in, you see this impenetrable force, this unstoppable, unbelievable athlete.” But, he added, quoting her “weight of the world” message, “I tell you what…there’s no human being that can handle all that all the time.”
After word came that Biles had been removed from the uneven bars rotation, Roethlisberger predicted she’d rebound and still be a “valuable” contributor to the team final, “but it’s got to chip away at you. At some point, even the greatest.” Sloan, a silver medalist as part of the U.S. team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, agreed that the pressure “weighs you down.”
And sure enough, though she’s certainly battled her share of physical injuries, as pretty much every elite athlete does, it was Biles’ spirit that was hurting more than anything.
Just a few minutes after the uneven bars announcement, USA Gymnastics confirmed that Biles was done competing in the team finals altogether due to an undisclosed “medical issue” and her status for future events was day-to-day. The 4-foot-8 powerhouse, a four-time gold medalist at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and holder of a record 25 world championship medals, stayed on the sidelines to cheer for teammates Sunisa Lee , Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum , who still earned silver without their leader’s usual monster scores.
Terri Cole , a licensed psychotherapist and author of Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free , told E! News in a July 30 email interview that, when Biles pulled out, she thought to herself, “This brave young soul just changed the way the world values and views mental wellness.”
Between “the twisties” and “the mental stress and pressure leading up to the competition,” Cole said, “it all created a “perfect psychological storm to inspire her to courageously choose safety over the outdated idea that premiere athletes should prioritize winning over all other considerations.” Asked about the assumption that the greatest athletes are also the toughest mentally, she replied, “From a psychological perspective, I would say that ‘mental toughness’ without insight is not necessarily a good thing. Simone is displaying mental flexibility and extreme strength to have made the decision to pull out of the Games.”
Facing a sea of curious reporters at a press conference after the team medal ceremony, Biles—who took a year off from training after Rio and didn’t compete again until 2018—candidly admitted that her day, the Olympics, her whole year had been “really stressful.”
“I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it,” Biles explained. “It’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year. So just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out. But we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.”
She emphasized that she took “a back seat” to help her teammates, saying that they’d worked too hard for their medal chances to be affected by her own “screwups.”
“After the performance that I did [on vault], I didn’t want to go into any of the other events second guessing myself,” she added, “so I thought it was better if I took a step back and let these girls go out there and do the job and they did just that.”
Biles also said, tearing up, “I know that this Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself. I came here, and I felt like I was still doing it for other people. So that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
And so the conversation began.
Messages of support and solidarity immediately gushed forth from a broad assortment of fans, including rather famous admirers such as former first lady Michelle Obama , Olympians Michael Phelps and Adam Rippon , NBA star (and 2012 Olympian) Kevin Love , Janet Jackson and Justin Bieber .
Not that the unprecedented moment didn’t also offer a gut punch to those who could identify. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour hours later that she felt “devastated” for Biles, her “Final Five” teammate in Rio.
Moreover, the moment couldn’t help but be a reminder that while most gymnasts suffer for their support, some—such as Raisman and Biles, two of the hundreds of sexual abuse victims of former USA Gymnastics and national team doctor Larry Nassar —suffered more than others to a horrific degree.
“What we’ve all been through is so traumatic…and I can’t speak for every survivor, obviously, but a lot of them are my friends and I know from chatting with a good amount of them that we’re still dealing with it every single day,” Raisman said. “And what Simone even went through today and what she’s been going through the last few months—all of these Olympic athletes—there’s also this anxiety and this fear of disappointing people, and it’s really overwhelming and it’s really, really scary.”
It can “take over your life,” she added, and “it feels like it’s hard to breathe sometimes.”
Jamie Crane-Mauzy , a Junior World Champion skier whose experience recovering from a catastrophic injury suffered at the World Tour Finals in 2015 drastically altered what she thought was important and led to her becoming an in-demand motivational speaker, noted that even so-called positive pressure—i.e. constant GOAT talk—can easily turn into a negative.
“It’s really challenging when people are saying these positive things about you because you sometimes feel like you’re faking it,” she explained. “It doesn’t always feel like you can live up to their expectations.”
When it comes to more individual sports such as gymnastics, skiing or track and field, and especially when the Olympics roll around, so much talk is about an athlete’s “personal best.” And though that technically means faster, higher, more points—how quickly that can change.
“After my accident, my own personal best was struggling to walk up a flight of the stairs or… after the food tube was taken out, it took over two weeks for me to be able to take one sip of water,” Crane-Mauzy said. She returned to the slopes eight months after being airlifted off a mountain, emergency responders predicting they were transporting a fatality. “So my personal best had changed dramatically,” she added. “And that’s why I feel so strongly that Simone’s personal best in this Olympics was withdrawing from competition, and that is why she made that decision.”
Then, of course, there were some other takes on what happened, harsh words from those who called Biles selfish, weak, a quitter who let her team down, and other bizarrely hostile characterizations that said far more about the pundits and online attention enthusiasts making the remarks than they did about the gymnast.
“The anonymity provides a space for folks to displace their aggression onto others without consequence,” Cole, the psychotherapist, told E!. “It can and does bring out the worst in many people which is why being discerning about what you expose yourself to as a professional athlete or just as a person is an act of self-care.”
For the most part it seems as though Biles did a better job filtering out the negativity than we did, thanking people around the world for their tremendous showing of support. But she did note on Instagram July 30 as she broke down her case of “the twisties” : “for anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit. my mind & body are simply not in sync—as you can see here. i don’t think you realize how dangerous this is on hard/competition surface. nor do I have to explain why I put health first. physical health is mental health.”
No wonder so many other athletes—as in, people who actually know what they’re talking about, including her very gracious teammates—rallied around Biles’ decision to prioritize her mental health and take a step back, lest she feel obligated to not “quit” and end up breaking her neck.
“proud of you & everything you’ve accomplished!” Lee captioned a photo of herself and Biles flashing their silver medals (which Biles humbly said she did not earn, while her team begged to differ). “thank you for being a role model and someone i look up to every single day. you not only inspire me as a gymnast but as a person as well. your fearlessness and ability to do the impossible does not go unnoticed, we love you!!”
And no small matter, Biles’ sponsors also stood by her, Visa calling her move an “extremely brave decision” and Athleta chief brand officer Kyle Andrew telling CNN Business , “Being the best also means knowing how to take care of yourself.”
Which isn’t a message that most athletes have been accustomed to hearing, at least not when it comes to tending to their mental health.
“We carry a lot of things, a lot of weight on our shoulders, and it’s challenging, especially when we have the lights on us and all of the expectations that are being thrown on top of us,” Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time and an executive producer of the 2020 HBO documentary The Weight of Gold , told NBC’s Mike Tirico in the wake of Biles’ withdrawal from the team competition.
“It broke my heart,” he said, “but also, if you look at it, mental health over the last 18 months is something that people are talking about.” After the 2012 Olympics, Phelps became a staunch advocate for mental health awareness in the athletic world, opening up about his experiences with depression and suicidal thoughts .
Biles is “so accomplished, she doesn’t even need to be at this Olympics at all and is still the greatest gymnast ever,” figure skater Gracie Gold , a two-time U.S. champion and bronze medalist at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, told E! News in an interview. If the gymnast had said that she had torn her ACL, “nobody would be asking for receipts, or ‘Oh, let’s see that X-ray. Can we confirm this?’ But when it’s a mental health thing, it’s immediately questioned.”
On her end, Gold, who talked about her ‘issues with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder in The Weight of Gold , was about to skate competitively for the first time in two years at the Philadelphia Summer Championships. “Fracturing your psyche is just as valid and as real and as detrimental as a fracture anywhere else in your body,” she told E!. “And the questioning from people who have never been athletes, who have never been at the Olympics, who have never been the greatest of all time in their craft and with millions of people watching them on camera…I think it’s just a little bit ridiculous. I thought it was amazing that [Simone] put her mental health first, because as athletes, it’s almost like we’re conditioned not to show that weakness at all. So to do that and to put that as a priority is incredible.”
Skier Crane-Mauzy told E! of Biles, “For her to trust her instincts, enough to withdraw, you don’t know what she might have been avoiding if it wasn’t the time and place. And when you’re breaking world records and boundaries, society applauds your personal best. ‘It’s fantastic, it’s so good.’ And yet, when your personal best is something really different or [not society-approved], it’s much more challenging to still do what is best for you that day.”
The day before the shocking turn of events in the gymnastics arena, Naomi Osaka lost her third-round singles match in what was her return to competition two months after pulling out of the French Open , citing her own mental health concerns. The two-time Grand Slam champion had been fined $15,000 for skipping an obligatory press conference and, sensing no inclination to show up for any of them over the next fortnight, she left the tournament, not wanting to become a distraction.
Osaka was also both slammed and supported—and Biles was duly asked about it after she recognized that she wasn’t in the right headspace to compete.
“I say put mental health first because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your score and you’re not gonna succeed as much as you want to,” the gymnast said at the July 27 press conference. “So, it’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor or a person that you really are.”
At her post-loss presser in Tokyo, Osaka, who lit the Olympic flame during the July 23 Opening Ceremony and was representing her native Japan, told reporters, “I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this. I think it’s maybe because I haven’t played in the Olympics before and…[it] was a bit much.”
Less than 24 hours after pulling out of the team final, Biles said she wouldn’t be defending her gold medal in the individual all-around final, either.
In a make-the-most-of-it moment for all involved, however, that fateful decision cleared the way for Suni Lee’s all-around gold, the 18-year-old from Minnesota having hoped for silver at best behind Biles. That triumph was followed three days later by MyKayla Skinner ‘s surprise silver-medal showing in the vault finals, the opportunity to compete at all coming only after Biles pulled out; and then Jade Carey earning her first gold on floor exercise. Meanwhile, Lee’s bronze on uneven bars made her the most decorated American gymnast at the Tokyo Olympics.
Biles cheered on her teammates in person at every event.
And then, with all the experts wondering if she would ever compete again at all, let alone in Tokyo, she surprised yet again on Monday with her announcement that she would be competing in the balance beam final, having earned bronze in the event in Rio.
She repeated that result Aug. 3, understandably opting for a double-pike dismount instead of the more difficult double-twisting double tuck. Which means she’ll be leaving Tokyo with a bronze and a silver, and her head held high. (She’s also now tied with Shannon Miller as the most medaled American Olympic gymnast ever with seven—though Biles has four golds to Miller’s two.)
Biles beamed as she felt the familiar rush of another winning performance, even if the point total placed her third. And perhaps more than a little relief mixed in with the joy as she returned to her coach on the sidelines, seemingly for the last time on an Olympic stage.
But in any case, she looked happy.
“I wasn’t expecting to walk away with the medal,” Biles told reporters afterward. “I was just going out there doing this for me. To have one more opportunity to be at the Olympics meant the world to me.”
In the long run, everything that Biles did—or refused to do—over the course of a week in Tokyo will end up meaning the world to a lot of people, more than a suitcase full of gold ever could.
—With reporting by Alli Rosenbloom and Beth Sobol
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