When Simone Biles headed into the Tokyo Games with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, her Olympic success seemed assured before she even touched down in Japan. After all, she’s the most decorated gymnast currently competing; she’s known for nailing it; she’s the GOAT.
But looking back now, despite her track record, Biles says she isn’t surprised things didn’t go as expected. Hindsight has given her a clearer picture of what led up to her need to withdraw from the team competition — and why she should have pulled out of it even earlier.
“If you looked at everything I’ve gone through for the past seven years, I should have never made another Olympic team,” the 24-year-old athlete explained in a candid new interview with New York magazine. “I should have quit way before Tokyo, when Larry Nassar was in the media for two years.”
In 2017, the former USA Gymnastics doctor was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexually abusing 10 of the more than 265 women and girls who came forward, including Biles.
“It was too much,” Biles recalled of the stress she endured. “But I was not going to let him take something I’ve worked for since I was 6 years old. I wasn’t going to let him take that joy away from me. So I pushed past that for as long as my mind and my body would let me.”
That was until the moment she lost air awareness in the middle of her vault routine at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in July. She was dealing with what gymnasts call “the twisties,” when one loses track of where they are in the routine and are unable to rely on muscle memory.
“If I still had my air awareness, and I just was having a bad day, I would have continued,” Biles told the publication. “But it was more than that.”
And the risk was too great.
“It’s so dangerous,” she added. “It’s basically life or death. It’s a miracle I landed on my feet. If that was any other person, they would have gone out on a stretcher. As soon as I landed that vault, I went and told my coach: ‘I cannot continue.’”
It was a decision she knew she had to make, but one she knew many wouldn’t understand, as the Olympics are often viewed as a situation in which an athlete should give their all no matter what — and she’d given so much in the past.
Even Biles noted that it’s “kind of unheard of to win as many things as I have.” But her “God-given talent” didn’t change the facts. Olympians are human beings doing a job, a fact often lost on eager spectators.
“Say up until you’re 30 years old, you have your complete eyesight,” Biles said in an attempt to make her situation more relatable. “One morning, you wake up, you can’t see s---, but people tell you to go on and do your daily job as if you still have your eyesight. You’d be lost, wouldn’t you? That’s the only thing I can relate it to.”
Pushing through it was never an option.
“I have been doing gymnastics for 18 years. I woke up — lost it,” she said plainly. “How am I supposed to go on with my day?”
She couldn’t, and now her experience in Tokyo has led to an open dialog about athletes, mental health and knowing when to say enough is enough.