A case of the Twisties: What happened to Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics

Decorated American Gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from two medal events at the Tokyo Olympics citing mental health concerns and 'twisties'.

Twisties is a term gymnasts use to describe an almost inexplicable feeling where they are unable to perform a simple twisting skill that they must have practiced thousands of times in the gym.   -  Reuters

When the attention turns to the women's vault and uneven bar finals on August 1 at the Tokyo Olympics, one of the biggest stars of the discipline won't be on the floor - Simone Biles. Here's why.

On Tuesday, at the Artistic Gymnastics women’s team finals, USA and Russian Olympic Committee began the competition on the vault, USA’s strongest event. Simone Biles, the 24-year-old four-time Olympic gold medallist, who is considered one of the greatest of all time, was supposed to perform an Amanar - a back-flipping vault with 2.5 twists. Biles, however, did a much simpler vault with only 1.5 twists and stumbled forward on her landing. Even during the warm-up, she had similarly bailed out mid-air, completing only 1.5 twists.

Biles huddled up with her coach and teammates right after and decided to pull out of the competition. A day later, she pulled out of the individual all-round final and on Saturday, she also withdrew from the vault and uneven bars medal events.

Biles confirmed that it wasn’t due to an injury but her mental health. During the press conference after the event, Biles told reporters: “I just don't trust myself as much as I used to. I'm a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I'm also not having as much fun." She also mentioned experiencing the ‘twisties’. “They saw it a little bit in practice..having a little bit of the twisties,” she said.

While those who had never heard the term before were still confused, the gymnastics community immediately understood what Biles was going through.

READ: Simone Biles withdraws from two more gymnastics events at Tokyo Olympics

What are the ‘twisties’?

Twisties is a term gymnasts use to describe an almost inexplicable feeling where they are unable to perform a simple twisting skill that they must have practiced thousands of times in the gym. The body refuses to co-operate with the mind, leaving gymnasts disoriented while in the air, often leading to injuries.

“I’ve had the twisties since I was 11. I cannot imagine the fear of having it happen to you during competition,” said former US national team member Aleah Finnegan in a post on Twitter. “You have absolutely no control over your body and what it does. And the more you psych yourself out about it, the worse it becomes. You can’t control yourself and what your body is going to do next [therefore] literally risking your life.”

 

“The rhythm is off, and your brain will like stutter step for half a second and that's enough to throw off the whole skill,” Biles’ 2016 Olympic teammate Laurie Hernandez told Olympics.com.

"I’ve had the twisties before. Hated it so much. It's painful. It actively makes you feel like you're not the caliber of athlete that you are,” she said.

In a documentary from 2016, Swiss gymnast Guilia Steingruber, who won bronze at the Rio Olympics, talks about her struggle with the condition. “When I wanted to twist, I had no feeling where I am. I was really scared. I couldn't work how I wanted. It was tough for me because I didn't understand why it came and I couldn't stop it. The feeling was really horrible,” she said. "I started to learn the twist again like a small child."

So, when Biles cited mental health as the reason for her withdrawal, it was not because she simply wasn’t feeling it, but it meant that her mental state put her at risk of injury. She knew that another one of those botched skills could either mean a low score, or, worse, a bad injury.

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The USA Gymnastics side, without Biles for most of the evening, still won silver in the team final.   -  AP



“I knew it would be a little bit better to take a back seat, work on my mindfulness and I knew that the girls would do an absolutely great job. Didn't want to risk the team a medal because of my screw up,” Biles told reporters after the event. “No injury, thankfully. That's why I took a step back. I didn't want to do something silly out there and get injured.”

Physical and mental sport

Gymnastics is a physically demanding sport with challenging mental aspects to it that are rarely spoken about. The importance of being mentally fit and confident and the risk gymnasts put themselves under often get buried under the narratives of ‘doing what it takes’ and ‘persevering through challenges’.

However, USA Gymnastics’ response was a welcome change. "We wholeheartedly support Simone's decision and applaud her bravery in prioritising her well-being," it said in a statement. "Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many."

 

Biles had the backing of her team. “They saw I was going through it and they totally agreed it was not worth getting hurt over something so silly, even though it’s so big – the Olympics Games,” she said. “But at the end of the day we want to walk out of here, not be dragged out of here on a stretcher.”

It was understandably surprising to watch Biles, who rarely errs, consistently make mistakes for two days. She spoke about the stressful conditions surrounding the Tokyo Olympics and how she had never felt like she had on Tuesday before.

 

“It's been really stressful this Olympic Games. Just a lot of different variables and think we're just too stressed out. We should be out here having fun and sometimes that's not the case.”

“[I] was really stressed out. Shaking, could barely nap. I had never felt like this going into a competition before and I tried to go out there and have fun. But once I came out here, I was like, 'No mental's not there so I just need to let the girls do it,’” she said.

Biles’s withdrawal matches a shift in recent times of star athletes being more assertive about their mental health, taking care of it and opening up discussions about it, especially after Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open and Wimbledon this year. A shift of looking at a psychological issue as seriously as one would a physical injury. 

“I feel like I’m also not having as much fun. This Olympic Games I wanted it to be for myself but I came in and I felt like I was still doing it for other people. It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people,” Biles told reporters.

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