Simone Biles Takes Home Bronze after Tumultuous Games

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When Simone Biles withdrew from individual competition last week, the gymnastics world was shaken. Biles was the overwhelming favorite to win gold at the games, but, citing a case of “the twisties,” she made the decision to step back and let the U.S. team take the lead. Biles returned for the final competition and took the bronze medal in the beam event after altering her routine to include a less challenging dismount maneuver.

Her unusual decision to step away from individual competitions in which she was heavily favored to win highlights the changing world of gymnastics. Biles has spoken at length about the negative aspects of the sport and has become a leader for change. Her decision to pull out of Olympic events is a sign that gymnasts are gaining more control over their bodies and health. 

Biles took to social media to discuss the affliction, which she says has affected her performance in the past. 

“Btw it’s never transferred to bars & beam for me, it strictly likes floor & Vault,” she wrote. “But this time it’s literally on every event which sucks… really bad.” 

The condition can come and go without any regularity. Generally, the only practical treatment is for athletes to work on basic motor skills and try to avoid “getting into their head” about the issues they face.  

Michael Phelps, a former U.S. Olympic gold medalist and now-commentator for NBC, said on air that he understands the struggles that Biles’ faces and applauded her decision to remove herself from competition rather than risk injury.  

“We’re humans, right? We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect, so yes, it is OK to not be OK. It’s OK to go through ups and downs and emotional roller coasters,” Phelps said to NBC sportscaster Mike Tirico.  

“But I think the biggest thing is we all need to ask for help sometimes too when we go through those times,” Phelps added. “For me, I can say personally it was something very challenging. It was hard for me to ask for help. I felt like I was carrying, as Simone said, the weight of the world on [my] shoulders. It’s a tough situation.”   

The twisties is a condition that affects an athlete’s ability to tap into muscle-memory skills and can place them in grave danger. For Biles, the phenomenon affected her dismounts, causing her to lose her sense of place in the air and fail to properly rotate before landing on the mat.  

Two since-deleted videos on Instagram taken Friday showed Biles’ frustration and inability to properly perform maneuvers. Despite widespread news coverage calling the phenomenon a “mental health issue” and stating that Biles pulled out to “work on her mental health,” the twisties is not a medical diagnosis and is not a mental health issue. Rather, the phenomenon is considered to be a physical disconnect between what an athlete is attempting to do and what their body does.  

The twisties impact players in other sports as well and are often called “the yips.” There is no medical diagnosis nor approved treatment for dealing with the condition, which can force athletes to entirely abandon playing. It commonly affects golfers, baseball players, and cricket players, as well as gymnasts. 

In winning the bronze, Biles tied the record for most medals by a U.S. gymnast at seven. She has 32 medals overall in World and Olympic competitions.  

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