What just happened? That’s what I asked aloud watching Simone Biles short a vault in the Olympic warmups. How is this possible? It’s Simone, she is a rock.
Since then, I have explained the “Twisties” to numerous people, I have defended her decision when unknowing people called her “lazy”, a “coward” or “unamerican.” These critics just don’t understand that these athletes have trained almost their whole life for that one moment. A moment that comes only once every four years, and not for everyone; for a select few that make the grade. Years of training, injuries, soreness, tears, frustrations, and setbacks just for this one shot. In gymnastics the judges watch 1 routine. Literally, your life is about preparing for that 1 minute in time. Couple that pressure with the constant cameras in their faces, with 24-hour news cycles that had predicted their outcomes before they even arrived in Japan and the weight of American pride balanced squarely on their shoulders. On her shoulders.
She is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) and she was expected to live up to it. There was an overwhelming amount of pressure, and sometimes, when a gymnast gets into their heads, they begin to doubt themselves. They get disoriented in space. They feel a fear that they may have never felt before. In some sports, freezing up could mean lost points or a lost match. It may even be a devastating defeat. But in gymnastics, at that level, freezing up can mean injury, paralysis, or even death. In the face of all that it took great courage to take herself out of contention.
- Jade Carey had a stumble in her run for Vault and rather than throwing the harder vault to a potentially devastating result, she decided – midair – to throw a bail out vault. She knew it would cost the medal, but she put safety first.
- Suni Lee, missing critical timing, left out a difficult skill from her bar routine but ended up improvising and putting in a skill we didn’t even know she could do. Quick thinking and solid basics kept her safe and brought her a Bronze.
- Jade, again, on floor. Changed her routine the night before to eliminate unnecessary risk. It required re-choreographing half of her routine and she worked online with her choreographer (Betty Okino) who was in California to make the needed changes just prior to competing.
- Simone came back and competed Beam. She did a more basic version of her routine and took out any twisting elements to keep her “twisties” from affecting her performance. She won Bronze.
Gymnastics has gotten a bad rap lately. We had bad coaches and dirty characters behaving without integrity and without concern for the bigger picture. Athletes were not human. They were tools to achieve a win, and if a tool broke it was tossed aside and replaced by another. The sport was criticized for bad practice and at some level, rightly so. Since then our governing body has been stepping up to eliminate the bad actors, refine the process, and we have had a re-focus on athlete wellness and safety. Yet the critics still cast shade. The same critics that demanded change are the ones who now criticize such vital in-meet decisions as cowardly or not worthy of American pride. Let me point out that our team left Japan with All Around and Floor Exercise Gold, a Vault Silver, Bars and Beam Bronzes and a Team Silver medal. They also left happy and uninjured. Isn’t that a victory in itself? This is exactly what we should be cheering for, and to miss that opportunity to elevate the game in that regard is a shame.
When Simone took herself out of the individual event and All-Around competition, she did not leave, tail between her legs. She stayed with the team acting as a real leader. She still did one event (medaled), and she cheered. She cheered- for everyone regardless of country, she supported our team and promoted sportsmanship in ways that made me proud to say I am an American and that’s how we do it.