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'I couldn't even breathe': How Simone Biles rallied from her Olympic nightmare

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TOKYO — As Simone Biles tried to fight through training, fight to get herself back to an Olympic Games she’d trained her entire life for, fight to restore herself as the total athlete — body and mind — that she knew she was, she stood in front of the uneven bars and grew so panicked, she started gasping for air.

“I couldn’t even breathe,” Biles said.

Biles was trying to describe her experiences here in Tokyo. It was Tuesday night, one week and four competition days after she withdrew from the gymnastics team competition after a single, doomed rotation, sparking a global frenzy and upending these Olympics.

She had just made a triumphant return to competition, winning a bronze on the balance beam because she could perform a routine that didn’t require her to twist in the air. Her dismount was downgraded to a simple double pike — “I probably haven't done a double-pike dismount since I was 12 years old,” Biles said.

She didn't care, even if the decreased difficulty made a gold almost impossible. At least she could go out there. That was enough. For a woman who now owns a combined 32 Olympic and world championship medals, the result didn’t matter.

“I was happy to be able to compete one more time,” the 24-year-old said.

Afterward she was trying to explain what life had been like in the middle of a week of hell that she never saw coming, never thought possible, isn’t even sure how to describe. Confusion. Alarm. Dread. Tears. Gasping for breath in front of an apparatus she’d swung on countless times for nearly two decades.

Here she was, one of the greatest athletes on earth, the greatest gymnast of all time, and she was incapable of performing. If it was an ankle or a knee, at least everyone would understand. It wasn’t. So almost no one did.

Once in the air she had no ability to twist and maintain her awareness, she said. She would get lost and confused, dangerous reactions for a gymnast.

Simone Biles rallied from a hell she never envisioned to win the bronze medal on the balance beam. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Simone Biles rallied from a hell she never envisioned to win the bronze medal on the balance beam. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

That phenomenon, known as the “twisties” in gymnastics and understood by gymnasts, was foreign to the general public. Some pounced on her. Called her a quitter. Weak. Unpatriotic. A bad teammate. They called her a lot of things.

Biles was stuck, butchered online back in the States even as she tried to figure out how to get back out on the mat in Japan. She somehow had become a political punching bag.

She kept having to withdraw from competitions she’d trained for years to dominate. All-around. Vault. Floor. Bars. Final after final, gold medal chance after gold medal chance, each one getting knocked down like a domino.

“I had to stay level-headed and be OK with missing the other finals,” Biles said. “Watching them, being the girls' biggest cheerleader, it wasn’t where I wanted to be coming into these Olympics.”

What happened? She’s still trying to figure it out.

A week ago Monday, after the Russians had qualified more than a point ahead of the Americans heading into the team competition, Biles said there was some panic in the U.S. camp. She hadn’t performed to her standards —even though she was first overall in the all-around.

“After prelims, I wouldn't say startled or shocked, but there was a sense that everyone was freaking out except for us that the Russians were ahead of us,” Biles said. “We were all like, ‘We are OK.’ Then everybody was like, ‘We have to have this practice, we have to do this and this and this.’

“Bars were so bad for me,” she said of the training the next morning. “I couldn’t even get my toes on bar. Beam was fine. Then we went to floor and we were supposed to do leaps and turns and end up tumbling. That’s when the wires just snapped, like things were not connected. That’s when things went wrong.

“People said it was stress-related but I honestly could not tell you.”

She couldn’t pinpoint anything, really. She met with doctors every day here. She had two sessions a day with sports psychologists. Some went well. Some she could barely muster an answer. She was frustrated. Humiliated even.

“I kind of felt embarrassed with myself,” she said. “... My problem was, why were my body and my mind [not] in sync? And that’s what I couldn’t wrap my head around. What happened? Was I tired? Where did the wires not connect?

“I trained my whole life, I was physically ready, I was fine and then this happens,” Biles said. “Something that was so out of my control.”

She searched for solutions. She talked to family, to friends, other athletes. She said her mom wouldn’t stop calling — “nags me every five minutes,” she said with a laugh. She spoke with anyone she could.

She’d walk around the Olympic Village and have athletes she’d never met come up to her and offer support, advice or just say thank you. It was uplifting, but overwhelming.

“I was crying in the Olympic store because I just wasn't expecting that,” she said.

She put on a brave face and tried to take the outpouring of positive comments while ignoring the attacks.

After all, what kind of person would stoop to that? Why did they think she wanted to choose this? Why would she spend all those years and make all those sacrifices and punish her body in untold ways just to not do what she does best?

She knew most of them had no idea what they were talking about, were just blathering because they blather, typing because they type, gaining clout of inaccuracies and ignorance. Still, who was she hurting?

Simone Biles received backlash for her decision to withdraw from much of the Olympic gymnastics events in Tokyo, though little of it made much sense. (Photo by Wei Zheng/CHINASPORTS/VCG via Getty Images)
Simone Biles received backlash for her decision to withdraw from much of the Olympic gymnastics events in Tokyo, though little of it made much sense. (Photo by Wei Zheng/CHINASPORTS/VCG via Getty Images)

Her teammates stood 100 percent with her. They won silver in the team event, proving themselves. In her absence, they began winning their own competitions. Every American gymnast here is going home with at least one medal. She stood and cheered and encouraged all of them … both in practice and from the stands.

“Super supportive,” MyKayla Skinner said.

“She is an inspiration,” Sunia Lee said.

“She’s powerful in herself,” Jordan Chiles said.

Why wasn’t that good enough? And how could she ignore it all?

“At that point I was just kind of numb,” Biles said. “And then there are a lot of different speculations thrown here and thrown there. If I am taking ADHD meds which weren’t allowed in Japan and blah, blah, blah. Honestly guys, I haven’t taken ADHD medicine since 2017, so we can throw that out there. I just think there are so many speculations that people don’t understand.”

Then again, she didn’t understand, either. Right in the middle of it, an aunt passed away unexpectedly. Everything just kept piling up.

“It wasn’t easy pulling out of all those competitions,” she said. “It wasn’t easy. I physically and mentally was not in the right headspace and I did not want to jeopardize my physical health and safety.”

She couldn’t twist. And if you can’t twist, you can’t vault or tumble across the floor or dismount off an uneven bar. You can, however, compete on a balance beam. So Biles focused on that. It was the one place where panic didn’t set in, where she wasn’t going to hyperventilate. The doctors cleared her.

This was hardly her best or favorite event — she “only” won bronze in it at the Rio Olympics. She had qualified seventh here.

It didn’t matter. This would be it. Last chance. Last stand.

"Whatever happens, happens," she said.

So after an Olympics out of any athlete’s worst nightmare, after a week of torment inside her own head and online for the world to see, Simone Biles walked into the Ariake Gymnastics Centre and did what had always come naturally.

She competed.

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