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Simone Biles — It takes a toll to be the best in the world

Being the GOAT has a price. Simone Biles, the 'twisties', mental health and more.

Simone Biles after her vault.

Simone Biles after her vault. (Source: Sky Sports/Website)


Aditi Gandhi

Updated: 29 July 2021 8:16 AM GMT

As a people, we love winners. We love sport and we love watching athletes push themselves and perform superhuman feats. Whether it's Michael Phelps dominating through a butterfly final, or Usain Bolt sprinting to back to back golds, or Simone Biles performing the most unbelievable skills to establish herself as the 'greatest of all time', it comes at a price.

Under the big lights, the glory and the medals, there is a person. And a burden. The deal with being the absolute best in one's sport is relentless, there is no room for error and there is immense dependence. Simply put, it is incredibly demanding and it takes a toll.

The night of the Olympic gymnastics women's team final. After a wobbly and uncharacteristic qualification for Simone Biles and Team USA, the pressure was on.

Most believed the qualifications was just a one-off 'not so good' day for Biles and her team and that they would be fine by team finals. After all, it's a team with Simone Biles, and she never makes mistakes. What's to worry when you have the GOAT on your team?

Things started to seem amiss from the get-go. Simone had a strange warm-up vault where instead of performing her Yurchenko vault which usually has 2.5 twists, she did only 1.5 and almost bailed out of it mid-air.

She seemed as equally confused as the viewers and her teammates. The next time she would perform would be the competition vault. She had five minutes to process that and recover.

What happened next shocked most of the gymnastics community. Blocking off the vault and catapulting into the air, she did the 1.5 twists instead of the 2.5 again and somehow found the floor, landing in a scary deep squat.

There was confusion and drama around the arena. After exchanging a few words with her coaches, Simone walked out of the arena and it was announced she would no longer continue with the competition. She withdrew herself from the team final citing mental health issues.

What happened to the seemingly perfect Simone?

Imagine rebounding on a piece of equipment, throwing yourself up in the air, flipping and twisting multiple times simultaneously and having to find the floor for a perfect landing. Now imagine while twisting in the air you suddenly feel like you are lost.

You have no idea where you are or where the floor is. Your brain feels disconnected from your body. It is all happening so fast, you have almost no time to process any of it.

The 'twisties', a playful name for a rather frightening and serious condition, occurs when gymnasts 'get lost' in the air. Your mind, which is usually re-enacting muscle memory is suddenly engulfed in uncertainty and fear.

"I had no idea where I was in the air," said Biles. Although we don't know for sure that Simone had the 'twisties' during the team final, it may be.

Most gymnasts have dealt with the 'twisties' at some point in their gymnastics. It take one turn and one doubtful instinct for it to set in. Within seconds you can't do what is usually a simple skill for you. Similar to the yips in golf, the 'twisties' has significantly greater implications. The nature of the sport makes it a dangerous condition that can long-term damage.

Three-time Olympic champion, Svetlana Bouginskaya describes it as, "In gymnastics mental blocks are common, I had several of them [through] my [career] and I will tell you it's no joke, no play, it's reality when your brain [shuts] down however physically you should be able to perform. Mental blocks are sudden and unexplainable and you are at [a loss] because just [a second ago] you didn't have them."

The GOAT for a reason

Whether Simone had the 'twisties' or not, it was remarkable that she came out of the vault situation without a major incident, and her decision to not scratch the competition following the vault showcased immense bravery and maturity.

Being the best in the world has its benefits, but it certainly has its downsides. One of them being pressure. The pressure Simone was/is under is difficult to quantify. The issue with being so dominant in the sport is, she is always expected to hit and win.

One could argue, that this would be the case for any top athlete in any sport. And yes, that would be true and athletes are trained to deal with pressure. But what happens when their governing body publicly makes statements taking their wins for granted because 'they are so dominant' because they have Simone Biles.

Greatness and perfection in Simone's gymnastics are seen so often, that it is difficult to imagine that anything is challenging for her. The comment from Tom Forster, High-Performance Director of Team USA exudes complacency and a dependency on Simone carrying the team.

When her own governing body's head coach makes a statement such as this, one can only imagine the amount of pressure on her. It is crippling, to say the least. This competition should be a sinister warning to USA Gymnastics. Someone said, "Simone Biles is a person, not a strategy", and truer words have not been spoken.

The only thing more courageous and difficult to do in such a situation, was her decision to withdraw. With the hopes and dreams of billions on her shoulders and on the biggest stage in sport, she decided to prioritize her mental health over a medal and a potential injury. In gymnastics, one is often taught to ignore blocks and step up to perform.

Simone's decision sends a strong and exceedingly important message to gymnasts and athletes around the world, 'no Olympic medal is worth sacrificing one's mental health. It is OK to not be OK.' This message will hope to resonate with numerous young athletes around the world to acknowledge their mental health and take their time to deal with it.

Simone Biles is the GOAT not only because she performs the most impossible and frankly insane gymnastics skills, but more importantly because she has a voice and she uses it.

Whether it is openly speaking up about the US sexual abuse scandal or the "Black Lives Matter" movement or advocating for children in foster care, she takes accountability for the power she holds and uses it.

Today, she joins athletes like Osaka, Phelps and many more in highlighting the importance of mental health and showing the world what athletes are often belittled for vulnerability. And that is the biggest victory of all.

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