Gymnast Simone Biles has been called the greatest of all time. She and the rest of the U.S. gymnastics team recently arrived in Tokyo gunning for gold—and were expected to win it. But on Monday, in the team finals where Biles was expected to help bring home gold, the megastar seemed to flail: The vault event did not go for Biles as expected, and with the team being built around her success, it felt like hopes for gold were dashed. And shortly after, the legend of modern gymnastics pulled herself out of all-around competition, citing mental health concerns. On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Rebecca Schuman, who writes about gymnastics for Slate, about what happened to Biles, and what her and the sport’s future will look like. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Going into the 2021 Games, the hype was pretty real for Simone Biles and the team.
Rebecca Schuman: On her best day, she is absolutely unbeatable. The thing is that if you’ve been watching her closely for the last year, you’ve seen flashes of absolute incredible brilliance and also her exhaustion. She said her body hurts her, that she felt like she could barely hang on until 2020. So when the Games were postponed to 2021, she’d been hanging on by her proverbial fingernails, carrying the weight of these cursed Olympics on her shoulders. She did not want to be there. She didn’t want to do it. A large part of her wanted to do it to show the world how great she can be. But a large part of her also was done and wanted to retire last year.
So what was driving her this year?
Several things. One, she is still capable of doing these incredible moves with incredible execution, and she wants to show the world she can do it. And the other thing she has said multiple times is that as long as she’s around, USA Gymnastics cannot get complacent about what it’s done.
What USA Gymnastics did was foster a culture of abuse for year. Dozens of athletes testified that team doctor Larry Nassar took advantage of them when they came to him for treatment. Biles was not one of those to speak out when Nassar went on trial, but she’s confirmed she was a survivor.
She’s the last survivor of Larry Nasser’s abuse who is still currently competing. And as long as she’s there giving USA Gymnastics a hard time, they have some accountability. That is hugely moving, but can you imagine having that weight on your shoulders?
The U.S., especially Biles, went into these Tokyo Games as the overwhelming favorites of this competition. What happened to the U.S. women in the qualifying round that made people start paying attention to possible issues?
Here’s what happened in the qualifying round: The U.S. started on floor, and everybody scored a little bit low. It was apparent that the judges were going to be a little harsh. When Biles took the floor, she looked amazing, but her only error was that her third tumbling pass was too powerful and she bounded not just out of bounds, but off the floor entirely. She did score quite a bit lower than she usually does, and that set a little bit of a pall over the competition.
Its sounds like the team was freaked out.
The team was freaked out. Everybody was a little shook. Then when Biles took the beam, she stayed on for her whole routine—and then her dismount again went wonky and she took a lot of steps back.
Many observers shrugged off these missteps in the qualifying rounds while noting that Russia’s team was surpassing expectations. But these shaky performances seemed to mess with American gymnasts’ heads, especially Biles’. When it was time for actual team competition, how did it go?
The worst it possibly could have for Biles. It started in warmups. She did her warmup and something went wrong during it. Then, everyone else competing does does pretty well and then it’s time for Biles and she goes up and into the middle of the air, and I could tell immediately that something went really, really wrong: She’d lost where she was.
How did could you tell?
I could just tell because it didn’t look like what she usually does. She only did a twist and a half instead of two-and-a-half. But she’s been doing this to perfection for years. It was really, really shocking.
The thing that struck me is that when I watched the video, I could actually hear the announcer’s jaw drop, like she didn’t know what to say.
Correct. I could have maybe expected her to go sloppy on her landing, but to actually get messed up in midair … I’ve never seen anything like it before.
You’ve said that need to know where they are in the air at all times.
Exactly. Look, I’ve done it. When I was really little, I was in the middle of a back handspring and I got lost in the middle and I fell on my head and my parents thought I was dead. I was fine. But, you know, it happened. Every gymnast has gotten lost in the air.
What does it feel like?
It feels the world stops, like a record scratch while you’re in the air and you think you’ve stopped, because the world’s stopped and then suddenly the apparatus is on your head and everything is upside down—because most gymnasts get so good at their respective tricks that when they compete, it’s all muscle memory. You basically go into a blackout state when you’re doing it. Sometimes you can accidentally snap to in the middle of it, like, where am I? And then the awareness goes away and you’re on your head.
So it’s actually kind of dangerous to go out of the blackout state, because then you’re too aware.
The gymnasts were talking to the press about what happened, and people just kept asking Biles questions. She was being really hard on herself, she kept talking about the team’s silver medal, not hers, even though she was part of the team. A reporter called her on it and it started this very sweet exchange between her and her teammates. I’d never seen anything like that in a team sport before, where the members were really showing up for one another publicly like that.
In gymnastics, they’re all they have. Their organization, USA Gymnastics, has failed them. If they’re not there for one another, no one will be there for them. And they don’t have their families there. They’re completely alone.
Because of COVID.
And Biles is a pro. She spent the rest of the meet doing what people who scratch do, which is to cheer everybody on, help with their bag—you become like an assistant coach when you scratch, and that’s what she did. And then she went to the presser because that’s her job. I would have absolutely excused her from all of that. But she’s tough as hell. She just didn’t want to leave the arena in a stretcher.
The fact that Biles was able to make her own choice to pull out of competition this week is just more evidence of how Biles is changing her sport from the inside. It was impossible not to think about her decision to pull out after a vault gone wrong and compare it to Kerri Strug, who was forced basically to vault on an injured foot.
A severely injured ankle with a vault that she didn’t need to do. They didn’t need her score. They didn’t know it at the time, but they could have waited and just left it up in the air for one more routine. And she didn’t want to do it. But they told her to get through it.
That decision looks so different now because at that time she was a hero, she was on cereal boxes, like she gritted through it as part of the winning team. It’s striking how Biles’ gymnastics team looks like the polar opposite of that.
In every possible way. I think that that’s a good thing. I would rather be part of a silver medal team where people had control over their own bodies and didn’t compete while severely, grievously injured, than to be part of a potentially gold medal–winning team where that’s not the case. If Biles forced herself to compete in that state, that’s not a precedent to set for young gymnasts. What she did instead was heroic.
It sounds like you felt so brokenhearted for how things went down in Tokyo, and at the same time you’re like, Biles is still the GOAT, and this kind of proves it.
And I don’t think her post-Tokyo life is going to end up much different than it otherwise would have. I think she’s going to retire from competition and then be Simone Biles for the rest of her life. Nothing is ever going to dent her incredible legacy. She’s given the sport more than it deserves.