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Simone Biles Explains What Happened Before Her Withdrawal From Competition & It’s Absolutely Terrifying

Simone Biles of Team United States blows a kiss

Simone Biles shocked everyone when she withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics team gymnastics competition this week. It wasn’t clear at first what had happened but it was presumed that Biles, the best gymnast in the world, had suffered some sort of injury. It was then revealed that her decision was related to her mental health, and while details were vague, there was an immediate outpouring of love from her fellow athletes and her fans, praising her for prioritizing her own wellbeing.

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Now Biles has also withdrawn from the upcoming individual competition, and she’s explained what exactly happened on vault that led her to pull out. And it is terrifying.

As Biles described it, she had “a little bit of the twisties.” That’s a cute name but the reality—described as a gymnast’s worst nightmare—is anything but.

The Washington Post’s Emily Giambalvo describes the sensation of losing track of your own body while in midair:

Imagine flying through the air, springing off a piece of equipment as you prepare to flip on one axis while twisting on another. It all happens fast, so there’s little time to adjust. You rely on muscle memory, trusting that it’ll work out, because with so much practice, it usually does.

But then suddenly, you’re upside down in midair and your brain feels disconnected from your body. Your limbs that usually control how much you spin have stopped listening, and you feel lost. You hope all the years you’ve spent in this sport will guide your body to a safe landing position.

What gymnasts do is dangerous. And what Simone Biles does is basically death-defying. She’s so good at what she does and her moves are so incredible and so dangerous that judges have undervalued them specifically to discourage others from attempting them.

So when Biles lost control of her body in midair, it was serious. During the team final, she intended to do a 2 1/2-twisting vault but she was hit with the “twisties” after only 1 1/2 twists.

“I had no idea where I was in the air,” Biles says. “I could have hurt myself.”

The fact that she didn’t seriously hurt herself is remarkable and only due to her extreme skill.

It also now makes sense why the details about Biles’ withdrawal were fuzzy at first. This was a mental health issue, but also one that could have serious physical ramifications. “After Tuesday’s team final, Biles described mental health challenges that went well beyond gymnastics, with roots in the overwhelming pressure to perform as one of the faces of these Olympics and in the stresses of the pandemic year,” writes the Post. “Her experience with the twisties is impossible to separate from those broader issues, and regardless, it’s irrelevant to the dangers posed by them.”

While Biles received a massive amount of love and support from her fans, there were also, of course, those who were quick to criticize her for what they saw as weakness. This attitude comes from people like Piers Morgan, Charlie Kirk, and Matt Walsh—all right-wing commentators who make a living stirring up faux outrage aimed at people who have accomplished infinitely more with their lives than they ever will.

A lot of the people criticizing Biles are trying to compare her to other athletes in a way that, for one thing, completely rewrites the history of those other sports. For example:

But more importantly, those criticisms are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Biles, gymnastics, and the delicate and precise mind/body synergy required for the kind of feat these women attempt. You can’t compare Biles to other athletes because they are simply not the same.

These critics are also ignoring the fact that by deciding to step back from competition, Biles is taking care of her team. They went on to win silver, and if Biles had stayed on and made another mistake, in addition to putting herself at risk, she could have tanked their overall score.

Fortunately, the support for Biles has been far louder than the criticism. It takes real strength to know when you’ve hit your limit and to say so.

(image: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.

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