As the pandemic-postponed Tokyo Games loomed, Team USA gymnastics coach Sarah Jantzi talked about embracing a more nurturing training style, one that also included a focus on athletes' psychological well-being.
She didn’t pressure 18-year-old gymnast Grace McCallum to suck it up and keep going if she was exhausted or in pain, Jantzi told The New York Times. If McCallum made a mistake, Jantzi would remind her that no one is perfect — not even Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast of all time.
There’s a human behind those superhuman feats, and some of those humans are dealing with internal struggles we can only begin to fathom.
Eight weeks ago, Simone Biles was heading to the Olympics as America’s darling and a multiple-medal favorite after bringing home five medals, four of them gold, in 2016. She did the seemingly impossible again in 2021. Only this time, she did it using her voice.
During the team competition early last week, Biles failed to complete and land a gravity-defying vault that should have been second nature for a gymnast of her caliber.
It was an “uncharacteristic vault for Simone. Looked like she got almost lost in the air,” said an NBC Sports, commentating live.
As soon as she stepped off the mat, cameras caught a clearly-dejected Biles embracing her teammates, and apologizing.
“I’m sorry. I love you guys. You guys have trained your whole life for this. I’ve been to an Olympics. I’ll be fine,” she said, in the clipped voice of someone barely keeping her emotions in check.
USA Gymnastics went on to win silver in the team event — and Biles, to admit that she actually was not doing fine at all.
Those who’d been paying attention say they saw it coming, that there were subtle cries for help, including Biles’ recent admissions on social media about how she struggled with knowing the "weight of the world,” the hopes and expectations of her team and her nation, was riding on her back.
The Tuesday morning tweet from the sport’s national governing body rocked the pillars of Olympic history, but it didn’t tell the whole story:
“Simone has withdrawn from the team final competition due to a medical issue. She will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions."
Biles soon clarified the reason behind her decision to drop out of the team final, and then the individual all-around final Thursday.
"I do not trust myself anymore," she said, in an emotional moment before the world’s media. "I have to focus on my mental health.”
Former Olympian Carrie Bates woke to the news Tuesday at her home in Portland, Ore., and to a flood of intense emotions.
“It was almost like people were praying, ‘Oh please, just let it be her ankle, or something that we can tangibly understand. Please, please don’t let it be mental health,’” Bates said.
A top swimmer who won three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Bates — like a number of former elite athletes — struggled through depression and turned to substance issues after her competitive career came to an end. She got sober in 2012 and now works as an outreach manager for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. There, she sees daily how difficult conversations about mental health can be.
When Biles made it known the reason for her withdrawal was just that, Bates said, “it was like I could feel the world being uncomfortable.”
What she also felt was overwhelming admiration for the 24-year-old woman who’d done what no Olympian had: “She said ‘No.’”
“She just told millions of people in the world and millions of little girls that want to be just like Simone Biles that they don’t have to be perfect, that when you’re not OK, you have to take care of yourself,” Bates said. “What a gift is that?”
The impossible moves athletes pull off on the world’s greatest stage are only possible when everything else in their universe aligns. Stars and planets. Body, mind and soul. The “zone” — that place winners go where they can shut out the world and focus, focus, focus — is a powerful, but fragile, state.
“I always say, you show me a champion and I’ll show you a good napper,” said Olympic swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who brought home three golds and a silver medal in 1984. “Typically, athletes have very good seasons when the rest of their life is calm and taken care of. You want sort-of boring.”
That’s been tough to find in a pandemic year and an Olympic season that’s been anything but status quo. The games were postponed for the first time, and there were worries they could be delayed again. Qualifying competitions were put on hold and gyms closed down, forcing athletes to adjust training routines that, for many, were the foundation of both their physical and mental stability.
“Athletes, they want to know, literally, what the training schedule is a year in advance. But during the pandemic there was so much uncertainty. Nobody knew what was going to happen from month to month, and that’s not what an athlete needs. That’s the opposite of boredom," Hogshead-Makar said.
Even once things finally kicked off in Tokyo on July 23, they were the opposite of familiar, with empty stands and loved ones offering support via virtual connections.
For Biles, the 2021 Olympics were unprecedented for even more insidious reasons.
“We can’t even pretend to understand the culture of USAG that she kind of grew up in, with the Karolyis and the gym in Houston and all the things that go into that. And this is her first Olympics without them, without the normal team doctor,” Bates said. “For all we know, she is suffering from PTSD."
Gymnastics coaches Béla and Marta Karolyi and their national team training center were famous for producing world champions, including Nadia Comăneci and Mary Lou Retton. They also were known for a strict coaching style that bordered on, and often looked a lot like, cruelty. USA Gymnastics cut ties with the Karolyi Ranch in 2018, after the trial of former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar and revelations that many of his crimes had taken place at the couple's Texas-based training camp.
Elsewhere, those ties and that dark legacy weren't so easily dispensed.
Biles is the sole remaining member of USA Gymnastics who was there during Nassar's 18-year reign of horror, during which he sexually abused and molested hundreds of girls and young women under the guise of medical treatment. His crimes (first brought to light by coach and whistleblower Sarah Jantzi), as well as an attempt to dismiss and then bury them by leaders within USAG and the Colorado Springs-based U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, led to a top-to-bottom shakeup of America’s most hallowed sporting brand.
Nassar is now in prison for life and the USOPC's new leaders have promised change. The repercussions of sports’ biggest sex abuse scandal — and how the organization had systematically failed to protect and support the athletes in its charge — are still playing out legally, civilly and personally. More and more, though, they’re doing so behind the scenes.
If not for Biles, they might stay there, Bates said.
“She has openly said that she kept competing for 2020 because she felt like if there wasn’t a survivor left competing that USA gymnastics would not make changes to the organization,” Bates said. “She’s got such a big presence, on social media, globally … she has said that she felt like she could kind of hold USAG’s feet to the fire and make sure they made changes, so she’s really given a lot of herself.”
Hogshead-Makar points out that the many civil suits arising from the scandal are still battling through the courts.
USA Gymnastics is “still out there trying to say (protecting athletes is) not their job,” said Hogshead-Makar, CEO of Champion Women, a Florida-based nonprofit that advocates for girls and women in sports, and an outspoken critic of the way the USOPC does business.
“For Simone Biles to be at the Olympics, under the care of an organization that tried to argue...as recently as November of 2020 that it was not responsible, did not owe any duty to her to protect her from physical sexual or emotional abuse… in a foreign country, with no fans there that would normally be there to support her…..?” Hogshead-Makar said.
It’s a trigger-garden, no matter how tough you are.
“What trauma does to the brain is it makes emotional regulation much more difficult,” Hogshead-Makar said. “And where they would normally be able to trust their responses, that just isn’t there anymore.”
To become the best-of-the-best, something’s got to give.
“There are parts of ourselves that we have to ignore to push forward and push through it … to become the best at what you do, the best in the world,” Colorado Springs therapist Mark Mayfield said. “And I think that if there’s not somebody there helping you spend time engaging in the differentiation of self, in mind, body and spirit, I think a person could easily get lost.”
If a swimmer loses that focus at the wrong time, it means a winnable race lost by fractions of fractions of seconds, maybe a lifetime of regret and second-guessing. For athletes in other sports, the physical stakes are much higher.
“When I was a kid, my choice of sports was between gymnastics or swimming, and the line of demarcation was when I was learning to do a double back,” a tumbling move that ends with two, consecutive double somersaults, Hogshead-Makar said. Her father, an orthopedic surgeon, put the “kibosh” on that option. “My dad’s very first autopsy ever was on a national champion trampolinist who fell, got caught in the springs and broke her neck and died,” she said. “My dad said, ‘Oh, Nancy, isn’t it great that you’re so gifted...you’re not doing that sport.”
For many athletes, the price of a doubt is more than the loss of a medal, or even a legacy. Being off by a fraction of a fraction could mean serious bodily injury.
In a series of posts to social media after USAG’s announcement last week, Biles explained that she was suffering from “the twisties,” a panic-inducing predicament in which a gymnast suddenly loses sense of where they are in the air. She still had the twisties on Friday, shortly before USAG posted a statement to Twitter saying that, after “further consultation with medical staff,” Biles had decided to “withdraw from the event finals for vault and the uneven bars.”
Biles, the statement said, would “continue to be evaluated daily to determine whether to compete in the finals for floor exercise and balance beam."
Whatever happens, Simone Biles’ 2021 Olympic dreams had come to an end.
Her "next story," though, is just getting started.
“Frankly, I think it’s the most courageous, bravest thing that she could have done, and I also believe that it will be one of the shining stars of her legacy,” Bates said.
In Olympic time, the only thing that moves faster than a moment in the spotlight (or on the podium, if you’re lucky) is public sentiment.
As soon as USAG made the news about Biles public last week, critics and supporters hit the mat. Loud.
“I finally had to get off Facebook last night because I was getting so angry,” Bates said on Wednesday. “People saying she’s a quitter, a loser….that this is her job, she let her team down, that she's not allowed to say 'No.' Once again we’re a country divided, over whether Simone Biles made the right decision.”
Really, only one person’s opinion counts.
“At the end of the day...everyone is wrong except Simone,” Bates said. “She’s the only one who gets to make a decision about what’s right for her.”
In the five days since Biles withdrew, public sentiment, more-and-more, appears to have her back. Many of the public voices that sniped and mocked her have been shamed into at least public contrition, and countless former Olympians, including Michael Phelps, have leapt to her defense.
“I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open," Phelps told NBC on Wednesday
Biles, too, appears to have settled into her truth, and a way through the fallout.
Thursday, she wrote on Twitter:
“The outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”