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08-11-16-simone-biles-rio-2016-olympics-all-around-final-balance-beam-gymnastics-chase-sutton

Simon Biles competing at the Rio Olympics on Aug. 11, 2016.

Credit: Chase Sutton

Since her rockstar performance during the Rio Olympics in 2016, where she earned four gold medals and one bronze, Simone Biles’ celebrity status has solidified, extending way beyond the gymnastics community. Being gymnasts ourselves for nearly 20 years, there has never been another gymnast during our careers with such a large name recognition outside of the gymnastics world, which remained mostly hidden to outsiders until recently.

Biles has been compared to LeBron James, Serena Williams, and Tom Brady. But these analogies minimize all her accomplishments, seeing as these amazing athletes lose from time to time; she hasn’t. She has not lost a national championship since 2013! Biles shattered record after record, earning the right to call herself the GOAT.

Everyone was excited to see Biles blow the competition away in Tokyo — everyone except Biles. 

For the past five years, she has done everything her sport and the world have expected of her. She suppressed her emotions, only to be let out in private, and tried to be the obedient athlete gymnasts are taught to be: borderline robotic.

But after all the physical, mental, and sexual abuse that came to light shortly after the 2016 Olympics, Simone Biles realized that USA Gymnastics doesn’t care at all about its athletes’ well-being.

“If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side,” Biles said in a recent interview.

Simone Biles is an abuse survivor, yet she is still expected to happily compete for an organization that didn’t support her; they tormented her.

Any gymnast could see as she practiced and competed in the qualifying round of the Tokyo Olympics that Biles wasn’t herself. It’s hard to find the right words to describe it, but she just seemed a little off. Not her normal bouncy, peppy self. 

This soon became evident to the world when she pulled herself out of the team finals after nearly injuring herself on vault. But don’t think this happened because she couldn’t handle the pressure of an Olympic Games, as many are quickly jumping to that conclusion.

The enormous burden of feeling like she needed to constantly prove herself became too much to handle on top of the trauma she’s already experienced. Frankly, her mental health wasn’t where it needed to be to do the potentially life-threatening skills she performs seemingly effortlessly.

And that’s okay! We may like to joke that she’s superhuman, but at the end of the day, she is still a gymnast who experiences mental blocks like the twisties and is a person who finally deserves the right to put her mental health first before winning a gold medal.

At this point, the term “twisties” has been thrown around a lot since Biles’ removal from team finals in Tokyo and we can see why people outside of the sport of gymnastics would find this concept confusing and think of it as a potential excuse.

After all, what kind of dangerous mental block is called the “twisties”? 

To define it again, the twisties is a phenomenon gymnasts experience when they lose their spatial awareness in the middle of skills and routines. The best way we can explain it is when your body and mind fail to work synchronously when you’re twisting and flipping in the air. This may sound innocent enough by definition, but to experience it is nothing short of terrifying.

As gymnasts, we pride ourselves on our air awareness and on our ability to think clearly in the middle of difficult tricks to always find our feet and land safely. When that clear thinking and spatial awareness is taken away, it’s hard to tell whether we’ll land forward or backward; on our feet or on our head.

__________

I (Lauren) first experienced the twisties when I was in fourth grade at the age of nine years old. I was learning how to do a full twist going backwards in a laid-out position on the floor exercise. I could easily do a half twist, but every time I tried to do a full, I would begin twisting too early and would end up doing a 1.5 twist to my back instead.

Soon, I wasn’t capable of tumbling backwards at all, regardless of whether I was supposed to twist or not. Every time I tried, I would twist without meaning to and would land in very scary positions that put me at serious risk of injury. I would tell my mind one thing, and my body would do another. 

Nothing as a gymnast is more terrifying than that. It took me months to overcome that mental block. Even when I could back tumble normally again, I still struggled with and feared any form of back twisting. In fact, to this day, I still don’t back twist on any event I perform, which is very uncommon for collegiate gymnasts.

I put myself at risk of injury when I had the twisties learning a single back full. Just imagine what danger Simone Biles would be in if she experienced the twisties in the middle of her triple-twisting double backflip on floor exercise ... 

I, personally, don’t like to think about it.

__________

But is this truly a common problem in gymnastics? 

Yes!

It has been estimated that over 70% of high-level gymnasts have experienced psychological blocking at some point in their career, and speaking from experience, it’s usually not a “one-and-done” kind of situation. Numerous teammates of ours over the years have quit the sport due to mental blocks and the twisties, specifically.

Most gymnasts who succumb to their psychological blocks end up quitting because to overcome them takes extreme patience, resiliency, and mental toughness. And mental blocks are common at all stages of one’s gymnastics career. 

We still sometimes experience mental blocks to this day, though typically much less extreme than the twisties, and we have no doubt that most of our teammates would say the same. 

So what does this mean? 

This means that even Simone Biles, one of the most talented gymnasts to ever live, is not immune to the psychological blocks that the sport of gymnastics can cause, blocks which are often not talked about enough.

Growing up as gymnasts, we didn't see mental health talked about a lot. Of course, mental toughness was always a topic of conversation, and though a necessary skill to be competitive in this sport, it didn’t properly address and emphasize the importance of mental health for athletes.

Biles stepping away from the competition and acknowledging her (lack of) well-being was not an absence of mental toughness, but rather, an example of courage. Imagine the disappointment she felt when she realized that for her own safety and the success of Team USA, she needed to stop. 

Just like any other athlete, she had trained tirelessly for this and was forfeiting her shot to be named the most decorated gymnast of all time; that hurts. With the weight of the world on her shoulders, she set aside her own ego and everyone’s expectations in order to give the team its best chance at a medal, and she cheered them on every step of the way.

To us, that’s not being weak, that’s being strong.

The “win at all costs” mentality has been like a plague for gymnasts at all levels, not just Olympians. Personally, we’ve trained for weeks on broken bones and pulled muscles, and we were only in middle school! If you ask any gymnast if they’ve trained through an injury, they most likely won’t just have one example, but multiple.

Seeing Biles choose herself and her own health over a gold medal was a monumental occasion for gymnastics. It’s a step in the right direction: showing young girls that you don’t need to sacrifice your mental or physical health for this sport.

Gymnastics has the chance to instill in young girls amazing qualities like courage, resiliency, and mental strength, characteristics that will take them far in life. However, at the same time, we have to recognize that there is a line that we shouldn’t cross.

That line has been erased and forgotten over the years, and Biles is bringing it back into the light.


Photo from Penn Athletics

McCaleigh Marr (Left) is a rising junior on the Penn gymnastics team from Newtown Square, Pa., and Lauren Joost (Right) is a rising senior on the Penn gymnastics team from Parker, Colo.

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