What Happened to Simone Biles?

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S1: I mean, is there a word for what just happened with the U.S. gymnastics team in Tokyo implosion? Rebecca Schuman writes about gymnastics for Slate. Your tweets from the last 24 hours have been like this real time. Look inside your brain. There are right. They were a ride. Yeah. At one point you just tweeted, oh, my God. Oh, my God. This is over. It’s over. It was for the last few days, Rebecca’s been getting up at three thirty in the morning, flipping on a couple of different streaming services and watching the Olympic Games live. For a gymnastics enthusiast, this has been a little harrowing to watch the women’s team flub their qualifying events, even though they managed to stay in the competition. And then yesterday in the team finals, where Simone Biles was expected to help bring home the gold, Rebekkah held her breath as the star gymnast seemed to psych herself out on live television. The vault was where things really seem to go South questioned.

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S2: No female gymnast in history has ever taken this event on like Simone Biles.

S3: She gets ready for this ball and I’m sitting here in the pitch dark in my bedroom, you know, watching TV alone. And I’m just like, come on, you got this, you got this.

S2: It doesn’t matter what vault she does, it’s it’s a show stopper and it’s must see TV.

S3: I’m a journalist, but I also care about the person that I’ve been following so closely for the last five or six years. You know, I wanted her to feel better and do well. And so when she when the vault went wrong, I just I could yeah. I couldn’t even believe it. And wow.

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S4: Very uncharacteristic vault for Simone, but it looked like she got almost lost in the air.

S3: But I knew also that however much ahead Simone is, is however much the team usually wins by. And so I knew that without a plus fifteen.

S1: So she carries the team a little bit.

S3: One might say that the team was built around her, assuming that she would carry it. Some might say too much.

S1: But Rebecca was completely unprepared for what happened after the vault went wrong.

S5: A developing story out of Tokyo involving really the star of the Games, Simone

S1: Biles Simone Biles Olympic megastar pulled herself out of competition

S4: and having her teammates step in in her place. And so there was a lot of speculation as

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S3: Simone Biles doesn’t owe me gymnastics. She doesn’t owe anybody gymnastics. I was just shocked because I’ve seen her obliterate that Amanah vault every time she’s done it for years, like almost a decade. And I knew that they needed her to just vault like she does every day and she didn’t.

S1: Today on the show, Simone Biles has been called the greatest of all time. The goat. She and the rest of Team USA arrived in Tokyo gunning for gold. So what happened? A Mary Harris you’re listening to, what next? Stick around. So let’s just put Simone Biles in context, like here’s something I think about a lot how many gymnastics moves are named after her

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S3: to be determined because she may compete a new one if she decides to compete again at these Olympics? She has one more year like.

S1: So don’t pretend like this is a finished list.

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S3: So currently there’s one vault, two floor skills and one balance beam skill. So currently four, potentially five in the next couple of days, depending on what she decides she’s capable of doing.

S1: That seems like a lot like how does it compare to all the other gymnasts she’s competing against?

S3: Most gymnasts have zero, so I would say favorably.

S1: So going into the twenty 21 games, the hype was pretty real for her and the team. Like I was watching an interview she did on the Today show. And you could see how. Simone herself was psyching herself up, but then the the host was too. I mean, you’re driven and I watched some old interviews of you when you were younger. You were like, I always want to be better than that girl. Well, now there’s nobody out there.

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S3: You’re way out in front.

S1: So how at one point Hoda, the host, asks, are are you beatable? And it’s this funny moment because she says, I don’t know. On my best night. On my best day, probably not. You just never know

S4: if I’m at the top of my game. I feel like it would be very hard if I had a vote.

S1: I would say, no, girl, you are not beatable. And you realize, like, wow, we she’s incredibly confident, but also we’re putting so much on her.

S3: Well, there’s some nuance to that. That’s just that’s not confidence. That’s fact. On her best day, she is absolutely unbeatable. On her best day, she beat second place by four points. I mean, it’s staggering. Most people when things by tenths. 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 her body hurts her. She did not want to do another yet. She felt like she could barely hang on until 2020. And so when the games were postponed to 21, she has 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. And at, you know, a large part of her part of her wants to do it to to show the world how great, you know, that she can be. But a large part of her also was done and wanted to retire last year.

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S1: So what was driving her?

S3: Several things. One, because 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 that as long as she’s around USA, gymnastics cannot get complacent about what it’s done.

S1: What USA Gymnastics did was foster a culture of abuse for years, abusive coaching, sexual abuse. Dozens of athletes testified that team doctor Larry Nassar took advantage of them when they came to him for treatment. Simone Biles was not one of those who spoke when Nassar went on trial, but she has confirmed she was his victim.

S3: And she’s the last survivor of Larry Nasser’s abuse, who is still currently competing. And as long as she’s there giving USCG a hard time, they have some accountability. And that is a hugely both moving. And just so can you imagine having that weight on your shoulders? Hmm.

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S1: OK, so the U.S., especially Simone Biles, went into these Tokyo games as the overwhelming favorites of this competition. So what happened to the U.S. women in that qualifying round that made people start paying attention?

S3: Here’s what happened in qualifying. 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 bit harsh. That’s possibly might have sight. Some people out, I don’t really know. Then when Simone Biles took the floor, she looked amazing at her. Only error was that her third tumbling past was too powerful and she bounded not just out of bounds, but off the floor entirely. And she did score quite a bit lower than she usually does

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S6: when we talk about how much power and strength that she has and break here was exactly what went wrong. Just over rotated her feet, almost kind of landed a little bit in front of her her shoulders back.

S2: Wow. That was that was way past.

S3: So that set a little bit of a pall over the competition.

S1: But it sounds like the team was freaked out,

S3: the team was freaked out. Everybody was a little shocked. And then when someone took the team, she stayed on for her whole routine and it looked like it was just going to be this like, oh, finally something’s gone. Right. And then her dismount again went wonky and she took a lot of steps back.

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S1: Many observers shrugged off these missteps in the qualifying rounds while noting that Russia’s team was surpassing expectations. But these shaky performances, they seemed to mess with American gymnasts heads, especially Simone Biles. So then when it was time for actual team competition, how did it go?

S3: The worst for her, the worst it possibly could have. So she got up on the first it started in warmups, so she did her vault warm up and something went wrong during it. And so then, you know, everybody else falls, does pretty well. And then it’s time for her and she goes up and she goes into the middle of the air. And I could tell immediately that something went really, really wrong. Should lost where she was. I could just tell because it didn’t look like what she usually does. And then she lost where she was. She only did a twist and a half instead of two and a half, she almost set it down. And it was just the air went out of the like the world that’s just that’s evolved. She’s been doing to perfection for years. It was really, really shocking.

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S1: The thing that struck me is that when I watched the video, you could actually hear the announcer’s jaw drop like she doesn’t know what to say. And you just hear like kind of like. Of her lip smacking and like being like, OK, I don’t know what to say about this, this is not what I expected.

S3: Correct. It’s not like nobody ever could have expected, like I would have expected her to go real sloppy on her landing, but to actually get messed up midair, I’ve never seen anything like it before.

S1: And you’ve said that that’s a thing that happens to Gymnast’s where, like, they need to know where they are in the air at all times. They’re like they’re the pilot and they are playing at the same time, correct?

S3: Exactly. Look, I’ve done it. I was in the middle when I was really little doing a really low level. 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 were like, oh, the audience. And they 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 like you like the world stops. It feels like a wretched record scratch while you’re in the air and you think you’ve stopped because the world 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 they compete, that it’s all muscle memory. And you basically go into like a blackout state when you’re doing it. And sometimes you can accidentally, like, snap to in the middle of it and the blackout and like, where am I? And then the awareness goes away and then you’re on your head.

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S1: So it’s actually kind of dangerous to go out of the blackout state because.

S3: You’re too aware? Yeah, exactly.

S1: The thing that was heartbreaking to me is that with the Olympics. It’s become so common to just have the athletes and the coaches kind of caught on hot mikes, and you could see in some of the video Schuman goes over her to her teammates and she hugs them and she apologizes to them. And I just really felt for her in that moment because I was like such a personal moment to have a camera in your face and, you know, someone pumping up the volume to hear a kind of intimate exchange like that.

S3: You know, I mean, it’s heartbreaking. But they’re also they’re pros and they have all had just as many bad knees as good ones. And when it comes down to it, the Olympics, like the rest of the world and casual viewers might think it’s like the biggest of the big deal ever, but it’s kind of just like it’s another me. I know that’s not really another me, but it is sort of so once something happens, it’s like shit happens and you have to move on and, you know, Simone Biles can have a bad day. Anybody can have a bad day.

S1: When we come back, what happened to Team USA once their star gymnast dropped out? After her surprising trouble on the vault, Simone Biles briefly disappeared from the competition floor when she got back, she pulled on her sweats and said she was there to be her teammates biggest cheerleader. She just wasn’t going to compete. Eventually, she told reporters her head wasn’t in the games and she was worried about her safety. The Americans managed to win silver medals anyway. Russia took the gold. Some people may look at what just happened and say. Well, the U.S. gymnastics team did get a silver that’s pretty good.

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S3: That is pretty good. Those people are correct,

S1: but still shocking.

S3: Yes, because they were heavily, heavily favored to win the gold. However, there wasn’t that much international competition or really any to speak of in the last year and a half. And so we didn’t really know, like, you know, we saw what the Russians could do with their own domestic competitions and they were looking good, but we didn’t really know what they were capable of on the international stage until they showed up here.

S1: Did you watch the presser after after they won the silver medal and were sort of talking to the press about what happened? Because it was really interesting for me to look at, because, first of all, Simone Biles was there like I kind of didn’t expect her to be there should she’d scratched from the competition. And so I was sort of I was surprised that she’d showed up just because she didn’t necessarily have to put herself through that. And people just kept asking her questions. She’s being really hard on herself.

S4: I do my job. They they came out and they stepped up and they and she kept

S1: talking about their silver medal, not hers, even though she was part of the team, their silver

S4: medal. This medal is all of them in the coaches. And it has nothing to do with me because they did it without me.

S1: And a reporter called her on it and said, can you keep saying that? But you’re part of the team. And it started this exchange between her and her teammates.

S4: If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be here where we are right now. We wouldn’t be a silver Olympic medalist because of who she is as a person. So this all the kudos to you girls like this is all for you. Like, yes, we yes, we did this winning the battle back and forth.

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S1: But it was very sweet. And I had never seen anything like that in a team sport before where the team members were really showing up for each other publicly like that.

S3: Well, with gymnastics, they’re all they have their organization has failed them. I mean, they have their coaches, but they’re USA gymnastics that is still their umbrella sponsor has failed them. Yeah. So if they’re there for each other, no one will be there for them. And they don’t have their families there. They’re completely alone. They don’t have anybody because of covid. Yeah. Because we’ve covered. So they absolutely have to be there for them. And Simone is a pro. She scratched people scratch all the time and she spent the rest of the meet doing what people who scratch do, which is to cheer everybody on, help with their Chalke, help with their bags. 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 I would have absolutely excused her from all of that. But she’s tough and so.

S1: There’s this one other moment that I want to talk about from this press conference, which is a reporter asked Simone Biles about the moment that she pulled herself out of competition, basically who made the call, who decided that you were going to leave competition today? And she talked about the decision. She talked about going to her coaches.

S4: I was like, I think the girls need to do the rest of the competition without me. And they were like, I promise you, we’re fine. We watched you warm up. And I said, no, I know I’m going to be fine, but I can’t risk a medal for the team, so I need to call it. And you usually don’t hear me say things like that because I’ll usually persevere and push through things, but not to cost the team a medal. So they were like, OK, well, if Simone says this and we need to take a pretty serious. And so I had the correct people around me to do that.

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S1: And she made the point of saying I had the correct people around me. And to me, her saying that out loud was kind of underlining the fact that gymnasts have not always had the correct people around them. And it seemed like that’s what she was doing with that comment.

S3: That was a direct dig at Marta Karoly 100 percent.

S1: Can you introduce me to the Crowleys for people who may not be familiar with them?

S3: Absolutely. Bela and Marta Crawley were their Romanian immigrants. They first came to prominence by coaching Nadia Comaneci in Romania. And after Nadia left Romania for the United States, they also came to the United States. It’s possible that that happened in the reverse order. But at any rate, all Nadia and the Crowleys all are Americans now. And so the first super famous prodigy of Bellcore always was Mary Lou Retton. Once Mary Lou Retton happened one then boycotted 1984 Olympics, the Crowleys became superstars in the U.S. Everyone wanted to send their daughters to the Karalis, turn them into Olympic champions. Then after the 2000 Olympics, were very disappointing for the U.S., the USA gymnastics decided that they wanted to try to emulate these Eastern Bloc countries that produce champions. And they were going, you know, you couldn’t take children away from their parents at four years old and make them live in a centralized training facility away from their families. But you could bring them with their coaches to this facility once a month for like a week and make them train in front of you while you were mean looking at them. So that’s how the ranch worked for years and years and years. All elite gymnasts who were at the top of the top would be invited. So the Crowleys would didn’t coach anyone personally. They coordinated, they watched, they chose, they chose the team. They were the ultimate arbiters of everything, but they were absolutely ruthless. If you even looked at Marta Karoly wrong, she sent you away for the day. You know, you did anything you could not to get on her wrong side. She legendarily at the time it was called mean. Now, people would say verbally abusive. And it was under the Karalis watch that Larry Nassar was able to gain the confidence of all of these girls and young women, be the good guy, sneak him candy and then be like, of course, you trust me. And now I’m going to do this very experimental, important medical treatment that, of course, was not medical treatment at all. It was digital penetration and sexual abuse. So the Karalis are disgraced now for two reasons. One is because of the culture of abuse that they cultivated, and the other one is the result of this culture of abuse which enabled Nasser and lots of other abusers, not necessarily sexual abusers, but just like other abusive coaches to abuse.

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S1: Hmm, yeah, because it starts at the top. Exactly, it is Simone Biles who is running an elite gym now where she and her Olympic teammate, Jordan Chiles trained together. Rebecca says the fact that Biles was able to make her own choice to pull out of competition this week, it’s just more evidence of how Simone Biles is changing her sport from the inside. It was impossible not to think about Simone Biles decision to pull out after a vault gone wrong and compare it to Kerri Strug, who back in Atlanta was forced basically to vault on an injured foot.

S3: Yeah, impossible not to be 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. You know, she didn’t want to do it. She asked Balish is on camera saying, do I have to do it? And he said, yeah, you have to do it. Like you can do it. I know you can do it. You have to do it. You have to vote one more time.

S1: And a decision looks so different now because at the time she was a hero. She was on cereal boxes like she gritted through it and, you know, part of the winning team. And it’s just it is striking how Simone Biles gymnastics team looks like the polar opposite of that.

S3: Yeah. I mean, in every possible way. And the I, I think that that’s a good thing. I think I would rather be part of a silver medal team where people had control over their own bodies and didn’t get injured, like severely grievously injured, then part of a potentially gold medal winning team. Although, you know, if someone was off on all four events today, they still wouldn’t have won by any stretch. But even like even if she had pulled it out, but she’d forced herself to compete in that state, that’s not a precedent to set for young gymnasts. What she did today was heroic.

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S1: There is more gymnastics competition. Do we know if Simone Biles is going to be part of that? We don’t. What do you think?

S3: I’m not going to speculate. I think that, you know, she’s going to make the decision that’s right for her and whatever it is, I think that I’ll be really happy to support it. If I had, like, a gun to my head, I would say no gun to my head. I would say we don’t see her again.

S1: It sounds like you felt both ways, Rebecca. It sounds like you felt so brokenhearted for how things went down in Tokyo and then at the same time you were like. Simone Biles is still the goat, and this kind of proves it,

S3: and also I actually don’t think that 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 just, you know, be Simone Biles for the rest of her life. She’s nothing is ever going to dent her incredible legacy. She’s given the sport more than it deserves.

S1: Rebecca Schuman, thank you so much for joining me.

S3: Thank you so much for having me.

S1: Rebecca Schuman writes about gymnastics for Slate. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Carmel Delshad Davis Land Mary Wilson Alan Schwartz and Daniel Hewitt. We are led by Allison Benedictine, Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary desk. Thanks for listening. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.