Simone Biles’s decision to withdraw from Tokyo Olympics women’s gymnastics team competition and the individual all-around final has been one of the biggest stories of the week. I’ve been disgusted by the responses I’ve seen from “conservatives” and “patriots” who called her a quitter, a narcissist, weak, a sociopath, and more, and who used her support of Black Lives Matter as a reason to mercilessly judge her decision – a decision which had been definitively psychoanalyzed by (as my friend, radio host Jennifer Horn, described) Twitter couch potatoes within hours.
“She messed up on the vault and received a low score, so obviously she was afraid of not winning.”
“Pfft, mental health – if she was having problems, she should have stayed home.”
“She’s a symbol of everything that’s wrong in America these days – we don’t stick it out when things get rough.”
“She let her teammates down because she didn’t want to look bad, and took a spot someone else could have had.”
“She’s more concerned with ‘having fun’ or having these Games be about her than about her team.”
“If she wants it to be fun, she should win. Winning is fun.”
As is usually true in these cases, one rarely has the whole story at the moment an event occurs, and as I said when discussing the situation on “The Joe Messina Show” Wednesday night, it never hurts to take a deep breath and say nothing until you have the information. Alas, that doesn’t bring clicks, listeners, or social media cred.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t ample information available to conservative and Christian pundits – and the Twitter couch potato brigade – at the time Biles made her announcement to point them in a somewhat accurate direction in assessing her motives and reasoning – if they wanted to see it.
So, here’s what we knew at the time of Biles’s announcement. During her first rotation Tuesday in the all-around competition, on the vault, she didn’t perform well.
In listening to NBC’s live coverage, one can hear the hosts gasp as Biles misses the twists and lands, then the female host comments:
“Very uncharacteristic vault from Simone. It looked like she got almost lost in the air.”
The Washington Post’s live coverage blog reported contemporaneously (emphasis added):
Usually Simone Biles’s vaults are automatic. She rarely makes a major mistake. But in the team final, she had a costly error. Biles only completed 1 ½ twist on her vault when she was supposed to perform a 2 ½. She did the same in warm-up, as though she got lost in the air and bailed out of the skill. Biles landed in a deep squat and her score suffered significantly.
They also reported that Biles didn’t seem to be in pain but that she left the arena with a member of the medical team. About two hours later, USA Gymnastics released a statement:
“Simone has withdrawn from the team final competition due to a medical issue. She will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions.”
In comments to the press she said:
“I had no idea where I was in the air. I could have hurt myself.”
What Biles was describing was a case of the “twisties,” a phenomenon described by the Washington Post:
The cute-sounding term, well-known in the gymnastics community, describes a frightening predicament. When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.
This wasn’t the first time Biles had struggled with the “twisties,” but apparently was the most severe. While training for these Games and dealing with the pressure of being the GOAT, Biles was also dealing with the pandemic stress we’ve all dealt with, and her brother’s trial for first-degree murder (he was acquitted on June 16) she felt her mindset drifting.
The struggles seeped into her training, prompting mental errors. The vault in the team final was the first public sign that something was not right, but her teammates had witnessed similar episodes in practices.
“She was giving us a little heart attack,” teammate Jordan Chiles said.
However, Biles committed herself to overcome the mental pressures and soldiering on – like the champion that she is. It’s interesting that her critics say she should have stayed home if she was experiencing mental health issues, but then criticize her for not enduring until the end in Tokyo. So is she supposed to “quit” or “bail on her team” at the first sign of mental pressure, or when the pressure has become so great that it causes her to make errors that could result in paralysis or death?
Watching Biles’ face after her botched vault, and as she walks to her coaches and teammates, it’s apparent that she’s shaken and holding back tears. As her teammate said, while Biles had struggled in the privacy of training camp, that vault was the first public sign of the problems that were lurking barely beneath the surface. Biles admitted to being shaken in her comments to the press:
“I just don’t trust myself as much anymore. I don’t know if it’s age, I’m just more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I’m also not having as much fun. And I know this Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself. I’m still doing it for other people.”
Some pundits have latched onto the sentiments in the last half of that quote and essentially ignored the fact that she said she doesn’t trust herself as much and that she’s more nervous. When a gymnast says those things, what it means is that they are more at risk of serious injury because their head isn’t in the game. That was Biles’s main reasoning for withdrawing, as she stated in multiple ways and at numerous times, not that she wasn’t “having fun.”
As part of Biles’s announcement, USA Gymnastics promised to get Biles the mental health help she needs (in large part because of the years she was sexually assaulted by the team doctor as the organization looked the other way) and said her condition was being assessed day-to-day. In the latest updates to her social media, it seems highly unlikely that she will return for the individual apparatus competition:
Biles posted two videos of her trying to do her uneven bars dismount Friday on her Instagram story, and it’s clear she is not her usual self. She is supposed to do a double twisting somersault and, in the first video, she gets through a half twist before suddenly dropping out of the air and landing flat on her back. In the second, she makes it 1½ times around.
She also answered questions from fans about the “twisties,” how often she’s experienced them in the past, her reasons for quitting, and other topics. I’m posting the screenshots here since they expire 24 hours after posting, and so people who aren’t on Instagram can read them.
In these shots, she says that she has “experienced [twisties] before” and “they’re not fun to deal with,” and that they “could be triggered by stress I hear but I’m also not sure how true that is.” She admits that “it’s honestly petrifying trying to do a skill but not having your mind and body in sync.”
She also replies to a question about an alternate by saying that “once you start prelims or qualifications they aren’t allowed to replace an athlete,” but besides, even if they could have used an alternate, Biles “warmed up in the back gym ‘ok-ish.'”
Next, frighteningly, she says that the “twisties” were affecting her on every apparatus during this Olympics even though it had never transferred to bars and beams before. She describes the “twisties” as “the craziest feeling ever. not having an inch of control of your body,” and that “what’s even scarier is…I have NO idea how I’m going to land, or what I’m going to land on.”
She says that she didn’t have a bad performance and quit, and that:
I’ve had plenty of bad performances throughout my career and finished the competition. I simply got so lost my safety was at risk as well as a team medal. Therefore the girls stepped up and killed the rest of the competition and won silver. QUEENS!!!
She also personally answered the question about when the twisties started.
No, this was not happening before I left the USA.
It randomly started after prelims competition the very next morning. By that time NO an alternate was not allowed to be placed in my position for you “KNOW IT ALLS”
We have 4 on a team for a reason. I chose to not continue team competition in jeopardizing losing a medal (of any color) for the girls/US…also for my own safety/health.
One criticism that’s been leveled at Biles is that she said she’d wanted to compete in these Games for herself and that she seems perturbed that she’s “still doing it for other people.” Knowing Biles’s history with the sport, it’s clear that by “other people” she means USA Gymnastics. You know, the people who ignored the fact that the team doctor, Larry Nassar, molested hundreds of girls over decades, including Biles. The governing body covered up Nassar’s abuse and has worked to keep the details under the radar, and it’s not a secret that Biles has a problem with the group. For example, when they tweeted happy birthday wishes to her in March 2020, she replied with:
“how about you amaze me and do the right thing… have an independent investigation.”
how about you amaze me and do the right thing… have an independent investigation https://t.co/58Gc9QUk76
— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) March 14, 2020
Just two weeks prior to that, Biles had tweeted about a high anxiety level related to heading to team camp:
Ugh at the airport. Heading to team camp. Still want answers from USAG and USOPC. Wish they BOTH wanted an independent investigation as much as the survivors & I do. Anxiety high. Hard not to think about everything that I DON’T WANT TO THINK ABOUT!!!
— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) February 29, 2020
Within the USA Gymnastics world, Biles has fortunately had a great deal of support. Thursday morning, Biles retweeted a missive written by gymnastics coach Andrea Orris pointing out a number of horribly painful things Biles has already been through and that she competed at the highest levels at the same time, in an attempt to point out that a lack of mental toughness isn’t a challenge Biles faces.
From a gymnast friend regarding Simone Biles 🐐❤️ pic.twitter.com/4eWPIgi4yf
— Brandon Marino (@TheBatMarino) July 27, 2021
The statement reads:
“It makes me so frustrated to see comments about Simone not being mentally tough enough or quitting on her team.
“We are talking about the same girl who was molested by her team doctor throughout her entire childhood and teen years, won the world all-around championship title while passing a kidney stone, put her body through an extra year of training through the pandemic, added so much difficulty to her routines that the judges literally do not know how to properly rate her skills bc they are so ahead of her time.
“All of this while maintaining her responsibilities to her endorsement deals, the media, personal relationships, etc. and some people can still honestly say ‘Simone Biles is soft. She is a quitter’
“That girl has endured more trauma by the age of 24 than most people will ever go through in a lifetime.”
“For non-gymnasts, the fact that she balked mid-air and accidentally did a 1.5 instead of a 2.5 on her first vault is a big deal. It’s terrifying. She could have been severely injured getting lost in the air like that….The margin for error on a skill like that is extremely low. Wrong move, and career-ending or even worse, life-threatening injuries could occur.”
And yet she is supposed to still just perform because it makes some people angry that they had to watch Russia take the gold medal? What would you tell your daughter or granddaughter in that situation? Would you tell her, “Hey, Kerri Strug sucked it up and did what a physically abusive coach told her to do and sustained a career-ending injury, but hey, the USA won the gold so that’s what you must do, too!” I sure hope not.
There are those who say that because Biles didn’t come right out and say that a big part of the reason she’s struggling emotionally is because of the sexual abuse she suffered in silence for years and the fact that the organization that was supposed to look out for her enabled that abuse, that it couldn’t have played a part in causing her emotional difficulties in Tokyo. To that I say, do you honestly believe that someone who’s so affected by such a personal and traumatic event would have the fortitude to then discuss it in a press conference on international television? Newsflash: Many survivors don’t ever want to talk about it at all, let alone in the middle of a massive professional event. As Orris wrote:
“Despite what she’s able/choosing to articulate to the public in interviews, we will never know or fully understand her personal choices and struggles. She does not deserve to have any judgment passed [because of] all she’s had to endure because of this sport and the joke of an organization who protected her predator instead of her and her teammates for years.”
No, Biles does not deserve to have any judgment passed. She’s given her life to the institution of USA Gymnastics and that institution – and, by extension, all of us – failed to protect her and her teammates when they had no way of protecting themselves. When she knew that she was unable to overcome the “twisties” and that competing would be dangerous to both her teammates’ medal prospects and to her own health and safety, she did the responsible thing and withdrew.
Because of her decision Team USA still won the silver medal, and Biles’s teammate, 18-year-old Sunisa Lee, won the gold in the all-around competition – meaning Biles effectively passed the torch to the next generation and prevented her own mental health issues from affecting the team’s success. And it’s clear that the other members of the US Women’s Gymnastics Olympics Team still view Biles as a leader and are only upset (if they are at all) that she wasn’t able to compete alongside them. Their opinions are really the only ones that matter.
As my great friend and colleague Scott Hounsell wrote, Simone Biles doesn’t owe us a damn thing. She isn’t obligated to put her life and health in grave jeopardy so we can possibly beat the Russkies again. She isn’t obligated to compete when she shouldn’t just so a bunch of blowhards who, let’s face it, probably aren’t watching women’s gymnastics anyway, can declare her “patriotic.”