The vast majority of gymnastics fandom, and the sentient world, is already supportive of Simone Biles’ decision—shocking and sudden though it was at the time—to withdraw from the women’s gymnastics team final (and, later, the all-around final) at the Tokyo Olympics. We’d just watched in real time as Biles lost her orientation midair during her vault—the dreaded “twisties,” when a gymnast suddenly and inexplicably loses the “air awareness” that lets them know where they are in the middle of twisting skills. Her subsequent reasonable decision made a lot of sense to anyone with a functioning human amount of compassion—or, at bare minimum, a willingness to recognize the legitimacy of a fear that you might grievously injure yourself. Even legendary Russian Olympian Svetlana Khorkina, who has in previous years accused Biles of doping and claimed she (Khorkina) could have beaten Biles in her prime (she couldn’t have), went out of her way to have the American’s back.
The support has thankfully, for the most part, drowned out the weak cacophony of second-guessers who insisted that not only had Biles betrayed her country by nope-ing out of a few flips, but that also, she was setting a terrible example for the youth by being unwilling to break her neck so that other people can enjoy watching her on television.
Biles never owed any of us—especially the nearly-exclusively-male naysayers who have become gymnastics experts in the span of three short days—an explanation. Nor, it bears mentioning again, did she owe us any gymnastics. But she opened up on Instagram about exactly what’s happening to her right now, and about her chances of recovering before this weekend’s individual apparatus finals, all of which she qualified for.
In the since-ephemerized Instagram story that several fans (including yours truly) screengrabbed for posterity, Biles let us in on her personal experience of what many gymnasts already know from their own unfortunate forays into this phenomenon: The “twisties” sound cute, but they are not. In another since-disappeared training video that Biles posted to her Instagram story, she clearly lost “sight” of where she was midair in a sky-high uneven bars dismount. In the double-salto flyaway skill, she was supposed to twist twice, but she came out of the twist early and landed—fortunately—on her back, in the foam pit of a purposefully unnamed private Tokyo gym that opened its doors to her in this emergency.
Biles has gone rogue because the Tokyo Games’ “training gym” for Olympians contains only hard competition surfaces similar to the Ariake arena’s podium—its creators assuming, usually correctly, that by the time athletes reach the Olympic stage, they are no longer training new skills and in need of the foam pits and other equipment that keep gymnasts from dying during the learning curve.
As Dvora Meyers explained this week with her trademark encyclopedic thoroughness, the “twisties” are a short-circuit of sorts that happens without warning in a gymnast’s brain and causes their body to betray them midair, either twisting when it’s not supposed to or failing to twist when it is. Yes, the “twisties” are technically a mental thing—but as long as a gymnast has them, if she tries to perform her usual routines on a hard competition surface, she risks truly catastrophic injury. And if this gymnast is Simone Biles, who flies higher and twists faster (and, often, more times) than any gymnast ever has before her—well, she could die.
After posting those scary training videos, she went even further, letting fans all the way into the very brain that is currently betraying her, inviting Instagram followers to ask her any direct questions they wanted to about her current problems. “Is it worse on a certain apparatus?” asked one, to which Biles replied: “This time it’s literally on every event. which sucks…really bad.”
Asked if she’d ever experienced the twisties before, she explained that she has, and that they’re not fun. “It’s honestly petrifying trying to do a skill but not having your mind & body in sync,” adding with an asterisk, “could be triggered by stress I hear but I’m also not sure how true that is.” As far as how long the twisties will remain with her, Biles said that “unfortunately it varies with time,” revealing that “typically for me it’s usually 2 or more weeks when I’ve had them before.” As for now, she added, she’s taking it “literally day by day, turn by turn.” This time, by the way, will be spent “going back to basics” and training only in “soft surfaces/pits.”
As for right now, she says she “literally cannot tell up from down. 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.” Many of us recognized at the time how impressive it was when Biles landed that vault in competition on her feet, but I don’t think we truly understood that it was miraculous.
Finally, in a raw post that was heartbreaking simply for the fact that Biles thought she needed to write it—because, again, pretty much the only people refusing to support her right now are bottom-feeding trolls—Biles said: “I didn’t have a bad performance & quit. I’ve had plenty of bad performances throughout my career and finished the competition.” (She also, it bears mentioning, finished out—and won—the 2018 World Championships with a kidney stone, which numerous men who have never birthed a baby enjoy comparing to labor.)
“I simply got so lost,” she continued, “my safety was at risk as well as a team medal.” Her fully unpretentious, remarkably thorough, and ultimately revealing explanation complete, Biles ended with another tribute to Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum, the three remaining members of the U.S. squad who unexpectedly competed on every event in the team competition after Biles’ withdrawal, and continue to compete—and, along with MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey, may bring back hardware—as she assumes her new role of loudest fan in the otherwise empty stands: “QUEENS!!!!”