In the 12 years that she coached Simone Biles, Aimee Boorman witnessed her going through the "twisties" phenomenon that may have factored into Biles' stunning withdrawal from competition in Tokyo this week.
Biles said she got "a little bit lost in the air" in a press conference after she withdrew from Tuesday's Olympic team competition following one shaky vault, which many gymnasts recognized as the "twisties."
The "twisties" are when gymnasts are in mid-air and lose awareness of where they are in the skill, making it difficult to land safely.
Boorman, who coached Biles when she won four gold medals at the 2016 Olympics, has watched her battle bouts of the "twisties" at other points of her career on her way to becoming the most decorated gymnast of all time.
"Every once in a while, she would form this block and it usually had nothing to do with the gymnastics itself, it had to do with other things going on in her, in her universe," Boorman told Stephanie Gosk on TODAY Thursday.
Biles made it clear that it was not anything physical that caused her to withdraw. She intended to do 2½ twists on her vault, but ended up only doing 1½ twists before deciding to pull out of the competition.
"No, no injury, thankfully,” she said at a press conference. “And that’s why I took a step back, because I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured.”
Biles' former teammate, retired gymnast Aly Raisman, theorized that it may have been a case of the "twisties" when Biles left the competition.
"If she did get lost in the air, I do want to say that that is actually very common, because she's doing such difficult skills and she can twist so much more than the average person," Raisman told TODAY on Tuesday. "She's human. Sometimes it happens, when you're in the air, and we just kind of get confused."
The "twisties" are considered the gymnastics version of the "yips," when athletes struggle to perform skills that had usually come easily with muscle memory. It's like a golfer suddenly unable to make a short putt or a pitcher unable to throw a strike.
The difference is that in gymnastics, a miscalculation in mid-air could mean a potentially catastrophic injury.
"What's going through your head is 'I don't want to get hurt, and I want to land on my feet,'" Jamie Winkler, the owner of New York's Galaxy Gymnastics, told Gosk.
Dominique Moceanu, 39, who was part of the Team USA squad that won gold in 1996, tweeted a video on Wednesday of herself slipping and violently landing on her head on the balance beam as a 14-year-old at the Atlanta Olympics.
"In our sport, we essentially dive into a pool w/ no water," Moceanu wrote. "When you lose your ability to find the ground — which appears to be part of @Simone_Biles decision — the consequences can be catastrophic. She made the right decision for the team & herself."
Biles also withdrew from Thursday's all-around competition and is taking it "day by day" to determine whether she will compete in next week's individual events. She has qualified for the finals in all four of them — balance beam, floor exercise, vault and uneven bars.
Boorman said Biles has conquered the "twisties" before, but it could take anywhere from two days to two weeks. The individual competition begins on Sunday with the vault and uneven bars.
One possibility is to switch out the problematic part of a routine for one that makes her more comfortable.
"Normally when it would happen, we would go back to training, and we would stop doing the skills that were making her feel like she was in the 'twisties,'" Boorman said.