FARGO — American gymnast Simone Biles shocked the world when she abruptly pulled out of competition this week at the Olympics in Tokyo.
My daughter Alex and I woke up at 5:30 a.m. on July 27, feeling sleepy but pumped to watch live coverage of Simone and teammates Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum in team finals. Because of the time difference between the U.S. and Japan, the competition would be tape-delayed and shown in prime time later that day.
Vault was the first event for the Americans and as soon as Simone launched off the vault table, it was clear something was very wrong.
Instead of doing the intended round-off back handspring 2 ½ twist known as an Amanar in stellar Simone-fashion, she bailed after 1 ½ twists, her head in an odd position looking off to one side, her eyes rolled up.
She landed in a deep, awkward squat and took a large step forward.
At first, my daughter and I were dumbfounded. How could this happen to Simone, regarded by many as the greatest of all time in the sport?
Was she hurt? Was she sick?
My daughter immediately said Simone looked lost in the air, so uncharacteristic for an athlete known for pushing boundaries with her multiple flipping, multiple twisting skills.
We started talking about “the twisties,” a dreaded phenomenon familiar to many gymnasts and one that both of us experienced to varying degrees while training and competing.
As more information has come out, it’s clear Simone was coping with mental struggles, the twisties being just one of them.
As a gymnast competing on the U.S. National Team in the 1970s, I don’t recall it having a specific name but it was the same, frustrating experience.
I’d describe it as a serious mental block that can range from mildly annoying to downright frightening.
It can cause you to twist when you’re not intending to or cause you to stop twisting abruptly, either of which can lead to complete disorientation mid-air.
This happens, despite having done the skill hundreds or even thousands of times before.
People have made parallels to the “yips” or “shanks” in baseball or golf, but this kind of mental block in gymnastics is more dangerous due to serious risk for injury.
As someone who also deals with anxiety, I’d also describe the twisties as a flood of irrational, intrusive thoughts that can come and go, depending on the situation and the level of stress a person is under.
My brain would say, what if my body just twists when it’s not supposed to? Will I get seriously hurt?
Most of the time the skill went off without a hitch, but the fear was still there.
Non-gymnasts with anxiety might be familiar with other intrusive thoughts like, “What if I accidentally steer into that oncoming car?” or “What if I’m careless and drop my baby?”
You know in your heart you won’t do it and are horrified even by the thought, but still, it persists.
Some of my routines were tailored to avoid the stress, but the twisties kept me from learning harder skills and sometimes, my ability to enjoy this beautiful sport.
For my daughter, the effect was more pronounced. She couldn’t do a simple front layout on the floor without her body twisting.
The twisties are “the worst,” she says.
They crept into other events, even affecting her swinging moves on bars. Eventually, she gave up the higher level competitive program and chose to compete for her high school team, where she felt less pressure and could modify her routines accordingly.
The good news is, the twisties can be temporary for some athletes, or can at least be worked through for others by going back to basic skills for a while.
Some gymnasts may escape the twisties entirely, while it’s a career-ender for others.
It’s not known whether Simone will be able to overcome it and compete in event finals scheduled later in these Olympic Games. She qualified in all four events.
Simone has dealt with this before, but as I recall, she had to take considerable time away from the gym for it to ease.
And remember, she has other, much heavier emotional baggage she carries around, relating to years of sexual abuse she suffered by disgraced and now-imprisoned Larry Nassar, former national team physician.
She acknowledged that abuse publicly for the first time in 2018.
“The more I try to shut off the voice in my head the louder it screams,” she tweeted at the time.
So many people have been supportive of Simone, but there are the awful, uninformed naysayers who claim she deserted her team when they needed her most, costing the team a much-anticipated gold medal.
Instead, she took herself out of the equation because she saw herself as a liability instead of an asset.
“I just don’t trust myself,” she could be heard telling a coach during the broadcast of the team final.
She informed her teammates of her decision, assuring them they’d be fine without her and telling them she was there for them.
It meant Chiles and Lee would do two additional events they weren’t initially slated to do and that they’d have limited time to warm up on them as a result.
Those teammates, all first-time Olympians, responded admirably under the dramatic shift of events. Though they were undoubtedly rattled, they still succeeded thanks to their training, dedication and sheer talent.
Simone could be seen on the sidelines throughout, loudly cheering them on.
Instead of depriving the team of a gold medal, her move may actually have kept them in medal contention, allowing them to win silver — and taught the world a valuable lesson along the way.