Simone Biles and gymnasts know: mental health issues can lead to catastrophe when competing

TOKYO — A swimmer who continues to compete while struggling with mental health issues might finish half the pool behind their competitors. A quarterback might throw an interception. A pitcher might not be able to get the ball over the plate.

A gymnast might die.

Simone Biles isn’t only trying to protect her mental health by withdrawing from the team and all-around competitions at the Tokyo Olympics. She’s trying to preserve her physical safety.

“It's not worth getting hurt over something so silly, even though it's so big. It's the Olympic Games,” Biles said Tuesday night after withdrawing from the team competition following a balk on a vault. “But at the end of the day, it's like we want to walk out of here, not be dragged out here on the stretcher or anything. So I’ve got to do what's best for me.”

During warmups for vault, the U.S. women’s first event in the team final, Biles got what’s known as “the twisties.” While practicing an Amanar, a difficult vault that would normally be second nature for Biles, she lost track of where she was in the air and stopped twisting.

The same thing then occurred in the actual competition.

Simone Biles competes on the vault before withdrawing from Tuesday's team final.

Fortunately, Biles simply dropped to the ground, nearly landing on her knees. But she just as easily could have landed on her head, neck or back, with catastrophic results.

“I experienced those mental blocks throughout my career as a gymnast, and to be quite blunt, it only took one bad time of getting lost — or what they called the 'twisties’  — in the air in a big flip to break my neck and leave me paralyzed,” former gymnast Jacoby Miles, who was paralyzed from the chest down when she was 15, said in an Instagram post. “So I’m SO SO glad she decided to not continue until she’s mentally recovered.”

Rare as it might be, the risk is not abstract. Even at the highest levels.

Melanie Coleman, a Southern Connecticut State gymnast, died in 2019 after suffering a serious spinal cord injury when she slipped off the uneven bars.

Julissa Gomez was a contender for the 1988 Olympic team before she missed her mount and slammed into the vault during the World Sports Fair in Tokyo that year. Gomez broke her neck and was paralyzed, and she died three years later.

Elena Mukhina, the 1978 world champion, was paralyzed in a Soviet team camp shortly before the 1980 Olympics. She was rendered a quadriplegic and died in 2006 at the age of 46.

“You have to be there 100 percent, or 120 percent, because if you're not the slightest bit, you can get hurt,” Biles said. “Even on my vault … I had no idea where I was in the air. I could have hurt myself and it’s very uncharacteristic so why push it.”

Because Biles makes them look so easy, most people don’t fully appreciate the difficulty – and the danger – of the skills she does. Other women don’t experiment with them in training, let alone try to do them in competition.

When the International Gymnastics Federation failed to give Biles full credit for her double-twisting, double somersault dismount on balance beam in 2019, the women’s technical committee specifically said it wanted to discourage other gymnasts from trying it.

“In assigning values to the new elements, the WTC takes into consideration many different aspects; the risk, the safety of the gymnasts and the technical direction of the discipline,” it said in a statement. “There is added risk in landing of double saltos for beam dismounts (with/without twists), including a potential landing on the neck.”

Now imagine trying to do these skills when you are fighting rising levels of anxiety, as Biles said she has been doing since she arrived in Tokyo.

Biles has been open about her mental health struggles. She is one of the survivors of Larry Nassar, the longtime USA Gymnastics team physician who sexually abused hundreds of girls and young women, often under the guise of medical treatment. She is the biggest star of the Tokyo Olympics, predicted to win a record five gold medals.

And she, like so many people, has been forced to make adjustments to her life because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It just sucks that it happens here at the Olympic Games,” Biles said. “But, you know, with the year that it's been, I'm really not surprised how it played out.”