After returning to Olympic competition on the balance beam on Tuesday in Tokyo and securing a bronze medal, Simone Biles joined NBC’s Mike Tirico to shed light on her experience with “the twisties” and the pressure she was facing to perform.
The twisties are a phenomenon in which gymnasts experience a disconnect between their mind and body when hurtling through the air. Biles said she first experienced them when practicing on floor the day after the qualification session, during which she secured a spot in all six possible finals.
“I just got lost in the air,” but thought it was just a "fluke," Biles said.
After attempting to compete in the first rotation of the team final, she said she knew it was time to step out. “It was hard to watch from the sidelines, but I knew it was gonna be the best option for myself and for the team if we wanted to medal.,” Biles said.
Biles said she was re-evaluated daily by multiple doctors and a sports psychologist, and knew that the individual all-around was completely out of the question — as was vault and then floor, where she performs the most twists. She was eyeing a comeback on the uneven bars and beam, but after practicing bars, Biles knew she couldn’t safely perform on the apparatus.
When it came to beam, Biles asked her coach, Cecile Canqueteau-Landi, if she could downgrade her dismount to a double pike — a dismount she hasn't used in competition since her early teens. The rest is history: Biles nearly perfectly executed the dismount of decreased difficulty to close out her triumphant return in the final.
Asked about the “loneliness of being expected to win” — which was also highlighted by Osaka and Phelps — Biles said that female athletes have it particularly hard.
“It’s hard, but it’s harder being a female athlete because everybody prays for your downfall and wants you to mess up ,” Biles said. “What we do isn’t easy, or else everybody could do it. But also at the end of the day, we’re not just athletes or entertainment – we’re human, too, and we have emotions and things that we’re working through behind the scenes that we don’t tell you guys about. I just think it’s something that people should be more aware of.”
She added that a lot of the pressure she was facing was from herself, and that in addition to being the “face of the Games,” she had goals she wanted to accomplish and felt tasked with being the “glue” of the U.S. team.
"[Being the face of the Games] really didn't affect me, it was just what I wanted to accomplish and what I wanted to do, and how everybody was like, 'you're the glue to the team,' and that really stressed me out because I never thought of it that way," Biles explained. "But then whenever it's being shoved down your throat it's just like, 'So then if I have a bad practice, then the girls are off.' It's just hard."
Biles, widely regarded as the greatest female gymnast of all time, was the favorite to win up to six golds in Tokyo, instead walking away with a silver and a bronze. But she's unfazed, and knows she instead shifted the spotlight to a more important conversation in sports.
"I’m not mad at all. I’m very proud of the girls – all of them. I’m going home in one piece, which I was a little bit nervous about," Biles said. "It’s not how I wanted it to go, but we opened bigger doors to bigger conversations.”
She added: “Put your mental health first. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the biggest stage, that’s more important than any other medal you could win."