When Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games during the gymnastics team competition because of the “twisties,” I knew she wouldn’t return anytime soon. The phenomenon that we’ve since learned manifests as complete disorientation while spinning in the air, if not taken seriously, can result in serious injury. Simone was both praised for prioritizing her mental health and simultaneously criticized (by trolls) for being a “quitter.”
As a former diver, I can tell you firsthand that the twisties is no joke. Though I was far from elite caliber, I distinctly remember waking up one day to the complete loss of a simple backflip. That eventually manifested into an inability to execute even a back dive tuck. At the time, I thought I simply had overwhelming anxiety and decided to power through. With no sense of my fundamentals I threw my legs out from underneath me and landed on the board (on my stomach). Since I was never very good to begin with, I decided it was time to quit the sport altogether.
The head coach of the college got wind of my plan and said, “You are free to quit the sport, but you must do the backflip before you do.” Through a series of visualization exercises and simple diving techniques to regain my equilibrium, I eventually did the backflip. One might think that as soon as I did the dive it clicked back in my brain, but it did not. “Do it again,” the coach said. And I did. I did the dive about five times, beaming with pride — but still feeling slight disorientation.
I tell this story to explain a microcosm of what Biles must’ve been going through this past week. Her decision isn’t just about mental health as many have suggested, it is also about physical health. Gymnastics is unforgiving, and one only needs to look to Elena Mukhina to see the devastating consequences of performing when unable/not ready. This isn’t the “yips” in golf. Biles won’t miss a putt — she could break her neck.
Many gymnasts such as Dominique Moceanu came to Biles’ defense saying, Simone’s decision “demonstrates that we have a say in our Own health — ‘a say’ I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.” What we have learned about gymnastics, is that many gymnasts feel as if they do not have the agency to stand up for themselves. We saw pedophile Larry Nassar capitalize on this culture of silence and the brave survivors of his abuse have said no more.
Biles’ move has set a precedent for the sport for years to come. She is a walking representation that these Olympic athletes have agency over their mental health, their physical health, and their bodies. If the greatest gymnast of all time felt comfortable/brave enough to step away from competition, imagine what’s to come. She is the GOAT for another reason now.