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Simone Biles Got The 'Twisties' At The Tokyo Olympics. Here's What That Means

USA's Simone Biles looks on during the artistic gymnastics women's team final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre on Sunday.
Loic Venance
AFP via Getty Images
USA's Simone Biles looks on during the artistic gymnastics women's team final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre on Sunday.

TOKYO — At Thursday's Summer Olympics, the women's all-around gymnastics winner was ... not Simone Biles.

The title and gold medal went to Sunisa Lee of the U.S.

Biles' absence hung over one of the most anticipated events at the Games, an event she won at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. Biles withdrew after first dropping out of the women's team finals, while it was underway, earlier this week, citing mental health challenges.

She hasn't detailed much about what those challenges are.

But she has acknowledged suffering from a phenomenon known as "the twisties."

Lost in air

In her one, and perhaps only finals performance of these Olympic Games, Biles launched herself into a vault that, once airborne, would require 2 1/2 twists of her body. As she recounted afterward, it didn't work.

"I was trying a 2 1/2," Biles said, "and I ended up doing a 1 1/2. Just got a little bit lost in the air."

An ocean away, in California, former competitive gymnast Catherine Burns watched and winced.

"I know that feeling so deeply in my body," Burns said, "of being, like, I'm lost, I came out [of the move] too early, where am I? And all of that is happening in the course of split seconds, that recognition of something's not right and I need to be able to complete the trick without injuring myself."

Burns competed through high school in gymnastics and diving. She was nowhere near the elite world Biles inhabits. But anyone who has honed their airborne skills in sport can experience the frightening sensation of suddenly being lost in air.

It's called the twisties.

Simone Biles competes in the vault during the Women's Team Final on Sunday of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. She withdrew after this run and hasn't competed since.
Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Getty Images
Simone Biles competes in the vault during the women's team final on Sunday at the Tokyo Games. She withdrew after this run and hasn't competed since.

"You can get it on twisting moves," Burns said, "but you can also get it on any kind of rotational move. [And] you can get lost in the air on a really simple trick that you've done a thousand times before."

Burns said gymnasts, especially elite ones, do so much work to be able to gain muscle memory and awareness of knowing where their body is in the air.

"Having that spatial recognition, being able to see yourself doing the trick, it becomes a point where it's like built into your body," Burns said, "and you do it sort of without thinking about it cognitively. And then sometimes you get these twisties [and] it's sort of like a mental block that some people refer to as if you're starting to cognitively think about [it] again."

Burns likened it to other things we do over and over, with their execution locked into our muscle memory. Similar to walking down a flight of stairs.

"If you think too hard about picking your feet up at the right rate going down the stairs," she said, "and you start to get overwhelmed and you're going to trip over yourself. That's sort of the feeling of, like, thinking too hard or being too aware of something that you shouldn't really have to think about anymore."

Weight of the world

After Biles withdrew from the team final on Sunday, she acknowledged to reporters "having a little bit of the twisties." And she's had them before. She told Olympics.com that at the beginning of 2019, she forgot how to twist and flip.

A teammate from the 2016 Olympics, Laurie Hernandez, called the twisties painful.

"Hated it, so much," Hernandez said, adding, "it actively makes you feel like you're not the caliber of athlete that you are."

Stress can be a trigger. Biles has talked about having the "weight of the world on her shoulders" when she came into these Games as the preeminent star — someone so dominant that everyone else would be competing for second.

In the aftermath of Biles' ordeal in Tokyo, Catherine Burns posted a long Twitter thread describing the twisties. It got the predictable trolls calling Biles a quitter and soft.

"I think there's a lack of understanding of what this sport requires of people," Burns said. "I think in general these obscure sports [that] people love to watch every four years, they don't really think about the level of training that goes into it. So this idea of quitting or choking to me is just like setting the expectation of, you're a product, you perform for us, you are entertainment for me. And if you don't go out and entertain me, then what's your value?"

Making a statement

Burns heads an educational nonprofit in Oakland that teaches girls to, in her words, exercise the power of their voice. She said Biles' withdrawing from the world's biggest sporting event is an example of that power. And it's especially significant, she said, after Biles and so many other gymnasts were sexually victimized by the infamous former team doctor Larry Nassar.

Simone Biles cheers during the Women's Team Final on Sunday at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Getty Images
Simone Biles cheers during the women's team final on Sunday.

"I really see her as making a statement to other young girls," Burns said, "especially other young gymnasts who have experienced sometimes these levels of abuse from their coaches and USA Gymnastics, where they can say, 'no, this doesn't feel right to me. I know what I need. I know how to advocate for myself. And I want to stand up and represent myself in a way that would make me proud.' "

Many agree. Biles tweeted Thursday that "the outpouring [of] love and support I've received has made me realize I'm more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before."

Will that realization be enough to counteract the twisties and free her up to compete at these Games? Many hope so. But it appears the world will be OK, if it doesn't.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
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