TOKYO — Simone Biles is continuing to train in an effort to improve her concentration so she can properly, and safely, complete her high-flying routines in these Olympics.
She qualified for the Olympic finals in all four individual events — vault and uneven bars on Sunday, floor on Monday and beam on Tuesday. Biles can still compete in any or all of them. Or she can withdraw as she did during the team event Tuesday and before the All Around on Thursday.
If nothing else it suggests she hasn’t given up on these Olympics … if she can get her focus at a level that allows her to compete.
At the same time, she is clapping back at critics — most of whom have little to no knowledge of elite gymnastics or gymnastics scoring — that she “quit” on her USA Gymnastics teammates when she withdrew from the team competition after one awkward, low-scoring and nearly disastrous vault attempt.
“For anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit,” Biles wrote in an Instagram story Friday. “My mind and body are simply not in sync … I don’t think you realize how dangerous this is on [a] hard competition surface.
“I chose not to continue team competition [so not to jeopardize] losing a medal (of any color) for the girls/US,” she wrote. “Also for my own safety and health.”
With that she showed a video, which she said was taken Friday morning, of her attempting a dismount from the uneven bars where she both comes up one and a half twists short and lands directly on her back on heavy pads. A landing such as that in a competition venue would be perilous.
There is no way to verify what Biles was attempting in the video, but she later posted another where she landed less awkwardly and was “almost there but not quite … still have ½ [twists] to go.”
Biles said she is suffering from what gymnastics call “the twisties” or a lack of “air awareness” which is required for them to flip and spin through the air yet still land not just safely but perfectly for judges looking for even the slightest of errors.
“It is really, really hard to get rid of this problem,” Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova, who was part of the team gold winners and took bronze in the all-around here, said. “It is very confusing.”
It’s not uncommon in other sports — great basketball players air balling free throws, golfers missing putts, kickers shanking field goals, baseball players incapable of simple throws to first. Failure in those pursuits do not risk serious injury though.
Biles said in the past it’s taken “usually two or more weeks,” to get over the twisties. She doesn’t have that kind of time here. She wrote, “you have to take [it] literally day by day, turn by turn” and go “back to the basics.”
“... [You] literally can not tell up from down,” she explained of the twisties. “It’s the craziest feeling ever, not having an inch of control over your body. What’s even scarier is, since I have no idea where I am in the air, I also have no idea how I’m going to land, or what I’m going to land on — head/hands/feet/back.”
Biles said that while she’s battled this in the past, and her qualifying scores on Sunday were not as high as she wished, she expected to compete in all four rotations at team.
“It randomly starts happening ... the very next morning [after qualifying],” she said.
Earlier in the week her USA teammates — Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum — all confirmed something was wrong in Monday’s training.
“She was giving us a little heart attack,” Chiles said.
It carried over to the first rotation, where Biles attempted a Yurchenko with two and a half twists but only managed to complete one and half twists. She was able to land upright but took a huge step and a stumble.
The vault was so shockingly bad that her teammates covered their mouths. The Yurchenko with one and a half twists is a pedestrian vault at this level. Of the 24 gymnasts who competed that night, only one attempted an easier vault and only three scored lower than Biles' 13.766.
That score was 1.2 below Biles' qualifying mark, .540 lower than any other American and 0.700 below any Russian, who was the main competition for gold.
After just one rotation, mainly due to Biles' severe underperformance, the Russians were staked to a 1.067 lead in a sport where tenths of a point often determine victory and defeat. It was virtually unsurpassable, especially since the vault should have been a huge advantage for the Americans.
Biles, despite being the best gymnast in the world for nearly a decade, was now one of the worst competitors in the event and was a major liability to her team. Had she continued as she believed she would have, the Americans would have struggled to medal.
Whether she “quit” or simply took herself out of the game like a starting pitcher who was getting rocked or a slumping jump shooter who passes the ball to someone more likely to score is the issue.
Those that know gymnastics argue it’s the latter. Those that don’t have been more vocal on the “quit”. Biles said you can’t compare general sports with gymnastics.
“I didn’t have a bad performance and quit,” Biles wrote. “I’ve had plenty of bad performances throughout my career and finished the competition. I simply got lost. My safety was at risk as well as a team medal. Therefore the girls stepped up and killed the rest of the competition and won silver. Queens!!!
“Hence why we have four team members because ALLLLL of us can compete in [the] team meet, not just me,” she continued.
She additionally explained some basic, and easily looked up Olympic rules, that she didn’t deny an alternate from competing in the team event because once qualifying occurred on Sunday, substitutions were no longer allowed.
Her teammates and coaches have been vocal in their defense of not just her, but the decision to step back from the team competition. After Biles’ vault, the Americans were extremely unlikely to do better than the silver they eventually won.
So there was no harm — medal wise — by letting the others take over.
As for what’s next, there is no telling. Biles said she is training at a local gym in Tokyo while seeking professional help for the stress and anxiety that she believes may have triggered the twisties.
She clearly wants to return. And wants people who tune into gymnastics once every four years — if that — to understand the context behind her decision.
Whether she gets back into competition, or changes a single mind in what has become a classic, modern American, hot-button topic, remains to be seen.
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