At the beginning of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Simone Biles was the poster-girl for every young buddying athlete and gymnast. Her mega-watt smile beamed out from TV screens, billboards and magazines, the reflection of someone at the peak of their physical fitness and athletic prowess, someone with unshakeable confidence. But when Biles took to her events, something was off. Viewers at home could only play armchair commentator, questioning whether Biles was merely having an off day or choking on the pressure of the occasion. But when Biles made the decision to withdraw from most of her events, a shocked world sat up and took notice. Finally, this was an athlete unwilling to sacrifice herself – both mentally and physically – for an accolade and further achievement. It took immense strength and courage to do so, and now Biles is speaking up about why she made the decision and still finds it heartbreaking today.
In a recent interview with New York magazine, Biles explained what it was like to get the “twisties” in Tokyo, a condition that ultimately led her to pull out of competition. While she admits she was feeling strong going into the Games after gaining some coping mechanisms from attending therapy during Olympics training, acute anxiety returned once Biles got to Tokyo. The Olympics suddenly felt unfamiliar due to the Covid-19 safety protocols and Biles was unable to shake the feeling that something was off. “Leading up to it, I got more and more nervous,” Biles said. “I didn’t feel as confident as I should have been with as much training as we had.”
As she took to the qualifying events, Biles started fumbling and her coaches soon stepped in with adjustments to help increase her sense of safety. “I was not physically capable,” she told the publication. “Every avenue we tried, my body was like, Simone, chill. Sit down.”
It wasn’t until she performed her vault in the women’s team that Biles knew she had to stop. She suffered from the twisties, only completing one-and-a-half of her two-and-a-half planned twists as she then stumbled on the landing. The twisties are a phenomenon triggered by stress and sees the athlete’s mind and body experience disconnect while in the air. For gymnasts, the consequences can be life-threatening. “My perspective has never changed so quickly from wanting to be on a podium to wanting to be able to go home, by myself, without any crutches,” Biles reflects. “It’s so dangerous, it’s basically life or death. It’s a miracle I landed on my feet. If that was any other person, they would have gone out on a stretcher. As soon as I landed that vault, I went and told my coach: I cannot continue.”
Even so, the decision was one that Biles says she still finds herself occasionally bawling over today. At the end of the day though, she knows that due to her emotional state and impaired bodily function at the time, it was the right decision. “Everybody asks, ‘If you could go back, would you?’ No. I wouldn’t change anything because everything happens for a reason,” says Biles. “And I learned a lot about myself – courage, resilience, how to say no and speak up for yourself.”
That Biles had significant emotional distress is clear. She became the face for an organisation that had failed her, after she was sexually abused by Larry Nassar. Since realising she was abused, Biles has spoken up about experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts after being in denial of the trauma for years. But most heartbreaking of all in the interview was the fact that Biles admits she pushed herself through a lot of the pain and pressure just to make the Olympics. “If you looked at everything I’ve gone through for the past seven years, I should have never made another Olympic team,” said Biles.
“I should have quit way before Tokyo, when Larry Nassar was in the media for two years. It was too much. But I was not going to let him take something I’ve worked for since I was six years old. I wasn’t going to let him take that joy away from me. So I pushed past that for as long as my mind and my body would let me.”
Now, Biles is back in therapy and processing the trauma as she continues her healing. She’s frustrated at the open-ended nature of recovering from such psychological wounds, but coming to terms with the fact that it might be something she continues to work through for the next 20 years. “No matter how much I try to forget, it’s a work in progress,” says Biles.
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