“It doesn’t really feel like anything,” 24-year-old Simone Biles said in a pre-Olympics documentary interview that aired a few weeks ago, trying to describe the indescribable. “It kind of feels like I’m flailing my body in the air, but I’m twisting really fast.” The six-time Olympic medalist was talking about nailing one of the many outrageous tricks in her expansive repertoire, this one a floor exercise move involving two flips, three twists, and one blind landing. “It feels more like a sound, rather than a feeling,” Biles said. “It feels like: zzzoop. Half the time, honestly, I feel like I’m just gonna die.”
She said all of this quickly and cheerfully. The information conveyed was part gallows humor and part simple reality; part zzzoop and part doom. Biles was being interviewed for Simone vs. Herself, a seven-part Facebook Watch series that aired in the months leading up to the Summer Olympics. Her words were a glimpse into what it takes to be professionally tasked with constantly and consistently redefining what the human body can do.
Heading into the Tokyo Games, Biles’s name had become national and even global shorthand, both for a sort of general superstar-tranche athletic supremacy and for an array of specific gymnastics moves—from balance beam dismounts to vault maneuvers—that only she could pull off. Over the past few Olympic cycles, the major intrigue surrounding Biles in competition involved predicting the degree to which she might outdo her prior legendary performances—and seemingly the laws of physics. As Biles said on Simone vs. Herself—in an episode titled “How Far Can I Go?”—the result has been a forever-escalating progression of tricks whose successful executions she could describe only as “out-of-body” experiences.
“I don’t know who that is, and I don’t know how she does it” is how Biles summed up her otherworldly talent. And for years, just about anyone who has watched the 4-foot-8 Biles twirl and fly and stick it has surely echoed the incredulous second half of that sentiment, again and again. It’s only in the past few days, since Biles abruptly withdrew from both the team and individual all-around competitions in Tokyo, that the world has really been forced to reckon with the importance of the first part. The greatest gymnast of all time has always been so much more than that.
By the time most Americans woke up on Tuesday morning, the news was everywhere: Biles was out. She had withdrawn from the team event, and in her absence Team USA had earned the silver behind Russia. At first, it was as shocking a piece of Olympics breaking news as any in recent memory: Biles is the U.S. team’s nucleus, its veteran presence, its magnetic force, its lodestar. She is so good that one of the big gymnastics stories heading into these games was the judges’ hesitance to award her routines the degrees-of-difficulty scores they deserved—perhaps because the powers that be were worried that lesser gymnasts would try, and disastrously fail, her maneuvers.
As updates trickled in from the other side of the world, it became apparent that the reason for Biles’s withdrawal wasn’t a lingering ankle injury or a newly bad back. (Already in her career, she had successfully competed through both broken toes and kidney stones.) It was something more ineffable, though no less visceral: Biles was getting lost in the air.
During the qualifiers on Sunday, she had struggled with a number of her dismounts, bouncing too high and ricocheting too far. Now, as the team event loomed, she seemed uncharacteristically out of place on the vault, an apparatus on which she usually thrives. Just a couple of weeks ago, Biles had hinted to The New York Times that she’d consider another vault-specific Olympic appearance in Paris 2024. But in Tokyo on Tuesday, her eyes darted around in confusion while she was in the middle of a flip, and her landing was harsh. Rather than hearing that zzzoop of success, she later told agog reporters, she was “having a little bit of the twisties.”
The twisties are an aptly named subset of the broader genre of nightmare fuel known as “the yips,” a situation in which a once-routine motion—a free throw; a tennis ball toss; a simple throw to first base—spirals into a state of malfunction. (In the novel The Art of Fielding, the sudden-inability-to-throw phenomenon is described this way: “Instead of rifle shots fired at a target, they felt like doves released from a box.”) To hear other gymnasts describe it, to have the twisties is to lose all sense of place, but also to gain too much of it, all at once. It’s the difference between feeling in control of an out-of-body experience and feeling utterly trapped by one’s own self.
“The rhythm is off,” 2016 Olympic multi-medalist Laurie Hernandez told Olympics.com, describing the twisties, “and your brain will like stutter step for half a second, and that’s enough to throw off the whole skill.” A young gymnast named Jacoby Miles who was paralyzed in a gymnastics accident wrote on Instagram that “getting lost (or what they called the ‘twisties’)” was what led to her neck injury. “Your body just won’t cooperate,” wrote CNN reporter and former gymnast Elle Reeve. “Your brain loses track of where you are in the air. You find out where the ground is when you slam into it.”
Biles told reporters that on Tuesday when she took off from the vault, “I had no idea where I was in the air,” a disorientation that prompted her to put back on her warm-up suit, cheer on her teammates to a silver medal, and remain on the sidelines indefinitely. “I can’t risk a medal for the team, so I need to call it,” Biles said, explaining her decision-making. “And you usually don’t hear me say things like that, because I’ll usually persevere and push through things—but not to cost the team a medal.” Answering another question that day, she said: “It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”
Last year, during a panel discussion for Heavy Medals, an ESPN podcast about former U.S. coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, a retired gymnast named Jennifer Sey reminisced that in her experience, “if you have any fear you’re criticized as weak.” This riled her up, she said, because fear is a primal urge for a reason. “You know, landing on your head and breaking your neck and being afraid of that,” she said, “seems like a decent thing to be afraid of! But that’s considered an insurmountable failing in the sport.”
At around the same time, former swimmer Michael Phelps released a documentary, called The Weight of Gold, that featured stories of a number of successful Olympians, himself included, who had struggled with mental health problems during, between, and after their Olympic appearances. The Karolyi podcast and the Phelps doc, both of which were highly critical of the U.S. Olympic establishment, had been planned to immediately precede the 2020 Olympics and raise awareness of mental health and athlete treatment, though the games wound up delayed by a year.
Another summer of 2020 documentary, Athlete A, followed the legal fight against monstrous longtime Team USA doctor Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison after more than 150 women came forward in court with accounts of his sexual abuse. He was also convicted of child pornography charges and tampering of evidence.
A year and a half after Biles came home with four gold medals and a bronze from Rio, she added her influential voice to the chorus of gymnasts whom Nassar victimized. “Most of you know me as a happy, giggly, and energetic girl,” she wrote on Twitter in January 2018. “But lately...I’ve felt a bit broken and the more I try to shut off the voice in my head the louder it screams.”
Biles’s honesty and advocacy has been bold, grueling, and deeply meaningful. She told The Wall Street Journal’s Louise Radnofsky that by returning for another Olympics, she could use her visibility to help ensure that the gymnastics federation would continue to be held to account for its enabling of Nassar’s crimes. She felt a responsibility to prevent the sport’s officials from moving past the horrors they allowed to happen.
Earlier this week, following her stumbles in the Tokyo prelims—stumbles that nevertheless earned her spots in every event final—Biles posted on Instagram: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The olympics is no joke!” Speaking with the Times before the Olympics even began, she had said she was mostly looking forward to the end, not the start, of the strange competition, one with no fans and no family there for support. And Tuesday she told the media: “It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year.”
From the NBA’s DeMar DeRozan to tennis’s Naomi Osaka, athletes like Biles have grown more comfortable talking about their inner thoughts, stressors, fears, and fight-or-flight reflexes. Phelps, with his own willingness to speak bluntly about the realities of elite competition, has been a highlight of the NBC prime-time Olympic coverage, and in the wake of Biles’s decision he told Mike Tirico that he could go on for hours about mental health. “We need someone who we can trust,” Phelps said on NBC. “Somebody that can let us be ourselves and listen. Allow us to become vulnerable, somebody who’s not going to try and fix us.”
Treating athletes with humanity ought to be table stakes: In a post that became widely shared on social media, one father told a story of watching the iconic Kerri Strug moment with his daughters and realizing that, despite the outcome, the girls weren’t remotely charmed by Karolyi’s famous insistence that Strug compete while badly hurt. And on Twitter, the former Olympian Dominique Moceanu—who battled through injuries of her own—expressed her support for Biles, whose decision “demonstrates that we have a say in our own health,” Moceanu wrote, “‘a say’ I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.”
The greatest gymnast of all time has moved the sport forward once again. And Biles seems to recognize that. On Wednesday night, she tweeted that “the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) July 29, 2021
Even amid all the confidence and the competence and the flying-through-the-air-with-the-greatest-of-ease highlights in the Simone vs. Herself documentary, there were signs of apprehension. “I’m starting to have head issues,” Biles said. One of her coaches explained that if Biles were to think too hard about the very feats she’s in the midst of accomplishing, she could wind up injured.
“Usually when you do a new skill,” Biles said, “you’re scared the first couple of times, and then you kinda get used to it.” But lately, she said, with her aggressive new vault in the hopper, “every time I stand down at the vault runway I’m like, praying.” On Monday night, in an NBC interview with Hoda Kotb, Biles talked about the pressures and pains of being 24—a veritable old gal in a preternaturally youthful sport. As a teenager, she said, she had been fearless, or even fear-seeking. Now, she was far more aware of the delicacy of her most dangerous stunts.
Biles has long been among the select group of athletes who are obsessed with progression and exploring the physical limits of what a human can do. Often, it’s the people who spend their time exploring the lines between riskiness and recklessness who best grasp, and take seriously, the connection between body and mind. “I’ve always thrived off of fear,” Biles said in Simone vs. Herself, “and I’ve always thought you should be a little bit scared, because I think that keeps the fun in it, and the joy.”
She hasn’t yet said whether she’ll compete in the individual event finals early next week. But after withdrawing from Tuesday’s team competition, Biles made clear that the fear wasn’t yielding fun in the way it once did. “At the end of the day it’s like, we want to walk out of here, not be dragged out here on a stretcher,” Biles told reporters. “I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to. And I don’t know if it’s age—I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I’m also not having as much fun, and I know that.”
In the past week, Biles has been compared to baseball players with the yips, to various real and hypothetical versions of Michael Jordan, and to other gymnasts who were carried off before her or who carried on without her. But a more relevant comparison might be to a mountain climber disciplined enough to turn back before a bucket list summit push because of hectic weather or unsteady snow. Biles’s decision to withdraw was both a prioritization of her mental health and a clear-eyed assessment of variables like fear, health, and risk. It was a sign of maturity that comes only with mastery.
Biles is, in some ways, both the climber and the mountain: For her, the safety of the conditions are the same as her condition. She is both a pioneer and a landmark, both an explorer and a natural wonder. She has seen views that no one else has and maybe never will. She is visible from every angle. She is finding new aspects of herself.
“This time is really for me,” she said in Simone vs. Herself. “I don’t have to prove anything to anybody, so that’s nice.” Instead, Biles has proved everything.