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Ryan Knutson: On Tuesday, midway through an event at the Tokyo Olympics, the gymnast, Simone Biles, unexpectedly pulled out.
Simon Biles: You know, I just, after the performance that I did, I didn’t want to go into any of the other events second guessing myself. So I thought it was better if I took a step back.
Ryan Knutson: Biles is one of the biggest stars at this year’s games. And as Captain of the USA Women’s Gymnastics Team, she was expected to lead her team to gold. When the women’s team competition began on Tuesday, Biles was planning to perform a vault that was exceptionally difficult, but that she’s done many times before. But, as Biles was spinning through the air, it became clear that something was wrong.
Male Announcer: Wow!
Female Announcer: It looks like she got almost lost in the air.
Ryan Knutson: Not long after, USA Gymnastics announced that she was pulling out of the remainder of the team competition. Then, she also pulled out of this morning’s individual competition. Her decision shocked the world of sports, but Biles says she wasn’t in the right state of mind to compete and that she withdrew for her own safety.
Simon Biles: I just think mental health is more prevalent now in sports, and it’s not just we have to set everything aside. We also have to focus on ourselves because, at the end of the day, we’re human too. So we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.
Ryan Knutson: Welcome to The Journal. Our show about money, business and power. I’m Ryan Knutson. It’s Thursday, July 29th. Coming up on the show, what Simone Biles decision to withdraw says about the shifting power athletes have over their own health and safety.
There are many things about Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the competition in Tokyo that are unprecedented. But, when it comes to Biles’ own career, it’s actually not the first time she just had to drop out of a competition while it was underway.
Louise Radnofsky: Eight years ago, Simone Biles was a newly minted, senior gymnast. She was fresh. She didn’t quite have the same experience. She was also relatively unknown.
Ryan Knutson: Our colleague, Louise Radnofsky, has been covering Biles for about six years. And Louise says that in 2013, when Biles was 16, she was participating in a competition in the US and it wasn’t going well.
Louise Radnofsky: Simone Biles had struggled on the uneven bars. She’d struggled the beam. She’d struggled on the floor and actually hurt her ankle though she was trying to hide that. And so, right before she was going to vault, her final rotation, her coach took what was a somewhat extraordinary step. She said, “you’re not mentally in the game. And I’m pulling you from the competition.” And a young Simone Biles was not happy about that and was insisting that she could push on.
Ryan Knutson: What impact do you think that moment had on her and her career?
Louise Radnofsky: Simone Biles was pulled from the 2013 event. She went on that year to become the National All-Around champion. She went on later that year to become the World All-Around champion. She actually has not lost any All-Around competition since 2013.
Male Announcer: There is another gold metal for Simon Biles. That’s basically unbeatable, at this point. Wow.
Female Announcer: Wow.
Ryan Knutson: Now, Biles has arguably the greatest gymnast of all time. And after dominating the sport for nearly a decade, expectations were high that before she retired, Biles would turn in one last incredible performance at the Tokyo Olympics. What kind of pressure was Biles under to win gold at these Olympics?
Louise Radnofsky: On the one hand, Simone Biles has won so much that she says that she doesn’t need to do anything any more for anyone else. She’s doing gymnastics for herself.
Ryan Knutson: But on the other hand, even if that’s how Biles was approaching the competition, Louise says, “that’s not how everyone was thinking about it.”
Louise Radnofsky: Simone Biles had the pressures of being dubbed the greatest of all time and the expectation that she would win every meet, which she had and which she did, but that was in no way preordained for her. She still had to come out and actually do it. Aware that every time she’d put out a more difficult move, the demand to put out an even more difficult move would be there. So, the expectations built up to an extraordinary level. And, in some ways, the sense that she would take everything at Tokyo was sky high.
Ryan Knutson: But, that wasn’t the only source of stress she was dealing with.
Louise Radnofsky: She is actively suing USA Gymnastics, her national governing body, and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee with whom she is here in Tokyo. Because she alleges and hundreds of other gymnast allege, that those organizations fail to protect them from the sexual abuse of Larry Nassar. Who was the national gymnastics team physician through 2015. Simone Biles has also identified herself as a victim of abuse by Larry Nassar.
Ryan Knutson: More than 150 gymnasts, including Biles, have come forward to say they were abused by Nassar. In 2018, he was convicted of sexual abuse charges and received an effective life sentence. USA gymnastics, now under new leadership, says it’s committed to working towards a resolution with the survivors and is committed to athlete’s safety.
Louise Radnofsky: She is the only self identified survivor who is still competing at gymnastics highest level. And she says, when she goes out there, she’s aware that the spotlight on her keeps the attention on what happened. And that might help gymnast get answers about what happened that are still unresolved. But it also means that at a meet, she could be asked by a reporter at any moment, when she’s trying to focus her mind on something else, about what happened.
Ryan Knutson: On Tuesday, Biles performance on the vault was uncharacteristically shaky.
Louise Radnofsky: She ran. She did her round off. She did it backhand spring onto the vaulting table, but instead of doing two and a half twists in the air she did one and a half twists. Then, she landed bending her knees so deeply that she looked like a gymnast who was performing a vault that was unsafe for her. That is not what Simone Biles has ever looked like when performing a vault before.
Ryan Knutson: So, right after she landed the vault in this unexpected and very shaky way. What did she do next?
Louise Radnofsky: Her score flashed on the screen and it was a 13.766. Which appeared to be a very low vault score. And so, it seems as if in that moment, there were two things that were clear to Simone Biles. What had just happened was incredibly frightening and what had just happened also contributed a horrible score to the US team.
Ryan Knutson: Team trainers told Biles that she looked fine, but Biles disagreed. Ultimately, she took off her grips and put on her warm-up suit. And then, USA Gymnastics announced that she was withdrawing from the competition due to an unexplained medical issue. Biles stayed on the sidelines and cheered on her teammates. The US team ended the night with a silver medal. Afterwards, Biles explained at a press conference what happened.
Louise Radnofsky: She acknowledged something that had been suspected when she seemed to get lost in the air. She had a little bit that the girls sort of were joking among themselves of the twisties.
Simon Biles: They saw it a little bit in practice. Having a little bit of the twisties.
Biles’ teammate: She was giving us a little heart attack.
Ryan Knutson: What exactly are the twisties?
Louise Radnofsky: This is something that gymnasts are trying to explain to people now, essentially disorientation. The gist is, we’ve heard people talk about it as if you kind of, your mind goes blank and you forget how to drive a car when you’re going at 70 miles per hour on the freeway.
Ryan Knutson: It sounds extremely dangerous though, in a sport when you’re doing all these flips. And in some cases you’re, you’re jumping 10 feet in the air.
Louise Radnofsky: It can be incredibly dangerous and incredibly terrifying. That’s what we’ve heard from every gymnast who has described her own experience with the twisties. It’s not something you can snap out of, and it’s not something that you can effectively push through. It could have life altering consequences. It’s not saying,…