Simone Biles, the renowned twenty-four-year-old gymnast representing the U.S. in what is now her second Olympics, has now withdrawn from the final three gymnastic events. After leaving the floor during the first rotation of the vault event, Biles has caused a whirlwind of speculation, confusion, support, and criticism. Early news had the four-time Olympic gold medalist quitting due to her mental health and inability to make herself continue to perform, and they left it at that.
This halfhearted explanation, however, is rather lacking—it doesn’t do Biles a favor in the least to leave it at that. Criticism for her walk-out hasn’t exactly rivaled the amount of support she’s received, but it’s still prevalent. I must admit, I even thought the explanation was rather silly, chalking it up to a bad case of nerves that she probably could have pushed through. Many people felt more sorry for the gymnast who placed fourth in the trials, pointing out that she would have loved to have had the chance to compete in the Olympics. A lot of people get nervous before performing, right? Surely she could have pushed through. Right?
So, why did Simone Biles really decide to give up her chances at gold?
It was obvious something was off with the typically flawless athlete as soon as she went to dismount during the vault event. As she flipped through the air, Biles visibly faltered, completing only one-and-a-half rotations of a dismount that was meant to have two-and-a-half, and barely landing it at that. While the performance was still stunning, it was nothing like what the most decorated woman’s U.S. gymnast usually has to show. Biles seemed understandably shaken as she left the performance floor—but, to everyone’s shock, she never came back on. Instead, she cheered her teammates on from the sideline as they still managed to snag the silver medal, leaving the world to wonder what happened.
Biles has admitted that she has a terrible case of the “twisties.”
The “twisties” are what gymnasts call the sensation of taking to the air and not being able to tell exactly where they are or what their body is doing—it’s a clear desync between the athlete’s mind and their body, and for gymnasts like Biles, who are already risking their physical safety to complete incredibly complex stunts, it could easily lead to paralysis or death. Not only does Biles have a common mental block, but it is one that could potentially have ended her career or her life if she hadn’t had made the hard decision to step out. The “twisties,” then, have much more terrible implications than a case of bad nerves.
Other gymnasts have begun to speak up about their experiences with the “twisties,” stating that the block comes out of nowhere and can affect even the most experienced athletes performing the most basic stunts. Deanna Hong, a producer for Golden: The Journey of USA’s Elite Gymnasts, interviewed some of these gymnasts. “One former US elite gymnast I talked to said that if it was someone other than Simone Biles who had made that same error, they would have certainly blown a knee, at minimum,” Hong said in a tweet. “Another said if it had happened to her instead of Simone, ‘I probably would have ended up paralyzed.'”
USA Gymnastics has stood in clear, unstinting support of Biles since the moment she made her decision (and Biles has returned the favor from the sidelines), saying in an official statement that they “wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”
“After the performance that I did, I didn’t want to go into any other events second-guessing myself,” Biles told Inside Gymnastics in support of both herself and her teammates. “I thought it was better if I took a step back and to let these girls go out there and let them do the job. Tonight, they get a gold medal from me. They never gave up.”
Given how hard she worked for an opportunity at five more Olympic gold medals, the sheer amount of pressure piled on her, the backlash she’s received, and the fact that she’s had to leave her teammates to compete one player down, Biles’ decision isn’t one to be envied. However, given the severity of what this “little case of the twisties,” as she called it, could have caused, it was the right one to make.