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I started writing this in the hours after American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic women’s team competition. Then I let it sit to see what the rest of the story might be. From the beginning, I found that Simone Biles, at age 24, was on track to be the second oldest women’s all-around Olympic champion. This naturally led to the oldest modern Olympic women’s all-around gymnastics champion, who won at the age of 26 in Mexico in 1968. The Czechoslovakian Věra Čáslavská, one of only two two-time all-around Olympic champions in women’s gymnastics, performed under far more real pressure, with far more real courage, facing far more real consequences than any athlete in Tokyo.
Simone Biles approached the 2020 (2021) Olympic Games as the defending all-around champion and the heavy favorite to repeat. She performed well in events leading up to Tokyo. Indeed, she landed a new, very difficult move on the floor exercise months before these Olympics.
The first sign of trouble may have been in that competition, where she wore a uniform with a goat (Greatest Of All Time) embroidered on the back. That may have been a great move from her PR and sports marketing agency’s perspective, but it certainly added pressure to back up the brag, especially as she had not yet demonstrated that she was the greatest Olympic women’s gymnast of all time. The basis of this premature “GOAT” hype was the heavy medal count between the Olympics, as Simone Biles dominated world championships with gold in multiple events each time. The special challenge of greatness in the Olympics is the time between them. A 24-year-old woman is just old in gymnastics, so postponement of the 2020 Olympic competition may have been one page too many in the calendar.
Then Simone Biles arrived in Tokyo. The competition starts with team events and then progresses to individual gold medals and the all around individual championship. Biles stumbled in the team preliminary round on both the vaulting table and the floor routine. Her first event was the floor exercise, where she put on a bit too much power and ended up completely off the floor area after a long tumbling, spinning run.
The vaulting table replaced the old vaulting horse as a basic safety redesign. Biles landed poorly, stumbling forward from the landing. The NBC analyst, a former Olympic gymnast, Nastia Liukin, immediately remarked “it looked like she got almost lost in the air.” That is the simple truth that was finally told.
Sadly, Simone Biles’ PR team did not advise her to speak the simple truth. Instead, we were treated to an invocation of “mental health.” As it happens, Simone Biles has an actual diagnosed condition, ADHD, for which she spoke about taking medication under full disclosure to the anti-doping agency. When she spoke out in 2016 about ADHD, she was hailed as courageous, when the plain truth was that hackers had broken into and published her medical records to insinuate that she was doping. Anyone alive and semi-aware since the mid-2000s knows that ADHD was heavily diagnosed and medications arguably overprescribed for a competitive edge in school, both because of extra time given for exams and because of the beneficial effects of the drugs. This was hardly a deep secret or stigmatizing condition by 2016. Later that same year, her great American success story, Courage to Soar, was published by a leading Christian book publisher, Zondervan.
Simone has a real story of childhood hardship, spending her earliest years in foster care until she and her younger sister were adopted by Bile’s maternal grandfather and his second wife. Early in 2018, she disclosed she had been sexually abused, after Rachael Denhollander led the way for victims in prosecuting the monstrous team doctor for his serial sexual abuse of girls in the U.S. gymnastics program. When the message was first put out that Simone Biles was withdrawing from the team competition, and likely the individual competition, for mental health reasons, there were natural skeptical responses, especially as the hype machine shifted smoothly from “GOAT” to noble and brave suffering victim. Then Simone Biles seemed to endorse former gymnast Andrea Orris’s lengthy defensive message, pointing to years of success while Biles was being abused, by retweeting and posting it on Instagram.
“It makes me so frustrated to see comments about Simone not being mentally tough enough or quitting on her team,” the message states.
“We are talking about the same girl who was molested by her team doctor throughout her entire childhood and teen years, won the world all-around championship title while passing a kidney stone, put her body through an extra year of training through the pandemic, added so much difficulty to her routines that the judges literally do not know how to properly rate her skills bc they are so ahead of her time,” the statement continues.
Yes, all true, except perhaps the claim about judges. AND. Simone Biles was a gold medal athlete through the years she was under medical care for ADHD. She also sought medical help for anxiety or depression after the world learned in 2018 about the long sexual abuse by the monstrous team doctor. Biles went public about her medical and therapy treatment on Good Morning America:
Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles revealed for the first time publicly that she is taking medicine to treat anxiety after revealing she was sexually abused by disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar.
“I’m on anxiety medicine now because I had a lot of ups and downs throughout the year and trying to figure out what was wrong,” Biles said Tuesday on “Good Morning America.” “I go to therapy pretty regularly.”
“It’s not easy but the people surrounding me are some of the best so it makes it a little easier,” she added.
She took five gold medals at Doha in 2018, as media buzzed around the horrific crimes committed against girls in the U.S. gymnastics program. She then took six gold medals in Stuttgart, 2019. So, on the world stage, in her physical gymnastic prime, she overcame the anxiety and ADHD to dominate as no one else had in women’s gymnastic world championships. That was two years ago and a lot of wear and tear on an elite athlete’s body. Now, she was striving to repeat, to defend her Olympic all-around title and to add to her gold medal count, standing at four after the 2016 Olympics.
It was not to be. NBC analyst, former Olympic gymnast, Nastia Liukin, called it right on the spot. Simone Biles had a bad case of the twisties. The twisties, for gymnastics, are a similar condition to the “yips” in golf.
While the origin remains unknown we can agree on the symptoms associated with the yips. And that is the involuntary movements that happen during a live swing at a live ball. The typical scenario will see a golfer performing one or two practice swings perfectly fine, only to see the live swing failing to reproduce the movements involved prior.
So for a short putt, whereas a practice swing would show a smooth back and forth motion the live putt would see a jerky motion with the wrists flicking. The consequence is often a closing or opening of the club face and/or seeing the ball rolling off quite a distance past the flag.
Add to the basic disconnect between brain and arms the gymnasts’ problem of maintaining three-dimensional orientation as they rotate through the air. What is disastrous for a golfer becomes potentially deadly for a gymnast. The entirety of “artistic” (not rhythmic) gymnastics is fraught with real danger. Smack your head on a balance beam, slip, miss a step, hand-hold, or landing and you might never wake up or walk again.
Melanie Coleman, 2o, slipped on the uneven bars and died of a spinal cord injury in 2019. In 2012, Jacoby Miles, 15, “got lost” in rotation on the uneven bars and is paralyzed from the chest down for life. The Korbut Flip, a dazzling but dangerous maneuver on the uneven bars, was banned in 2009. This move was named after Olga Korbut, who stuck the landing out of this stunning series of moves in the 1972 Munich Olympics:
It was the 1976 Olympics that saw perfection for the first time and the last time, as Nadia Comaneci scored perfect 10s. Nadia took three gold medals. Then she came back in 1980 at age 20 and won two more gold medals. Yes, the U.S. boycotted, but they were not the powerhouse they became after defections in the 1980s. Nadia calmly explains that she rushed a move on the uneven bars, missing and falling flat on her face, ending any chance of repeating her all-around title. That was nothing next to her escape from behind the Iron Curtain.
So, it should not have been terribly surprising that Simone Biles, also seeking to defend an Olympic title, also trying to push the boundaries after four years, in the face of new competitors and world expectations, would suddenly get the twisties and not recover in the hours before the next event.
When Simone Biles pushed off the vaulting table Tuesday, she entered that terrifying world of uncertainty. In the Olympic team final, Biles planned to perform a 2½-twisting vault, but her mind chose to stall after just 1½ twists.
“I had no idea where I was in the air,” Biles said. “I could have hurt myself.”
Biles, who subsequently withdrew from the team competition and then the all-around final a day later, described what went wrong during that vault as “having a little bit of the twisties.”
The cute-sounding term, well-known in the gymnastics community, describes a frightening predicament. When gymnasts have the “twisties,” they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.
[ . . . ]
“[W]hen you’re at the Olympic Games, you don’t have that luxury of training in a facility where you can take a day to do basics, re-control your gymnastics and go into pits,” Melton said. “It’s tough when you’re at a competition and you’re dealing with it because the stress of the competition’s weighing on you.”
No, Mental Health is not New to Elite Sports
Sadly, instead of just graciously saying she had the twisties and so was not safe in any event, the professional spin machine went from pushing the “GOAT” narrative (remember her uniform leading up to Tokyo) to mental health victim as a hero. There was nothing courageous about talking again about issues she had previously disclosed, nor did her PR team advance the acceptance of mental health issues among elite athletes. That ship sailed years ago with record gold medalist Michael Phelps disclosing in 2018 that he went into a deep depression after every Olympics, from 2000 to 2012. He finally sought treatment in 2012.
“Really, after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression,” said Phelps when asked to pinpoint when his trouble began. He noticed a pattern of emotion “that just wasn’t right” at “a certain time during every year,” around the beginning of October or November, he said. “I would say ‘04 was probably the first depression spell I went through.”
[ . . . ]
Today he understands that “it’s OK to not be OK” and that mental illness “has a stigma around it and that’s something we still deal with every day,” said Phelps. “I think people actually finally understand it is real. People are talking about it and I think this is the only way that it can change.”
“That’s the reason why suicide rates are going up – people are afraid to talk and open up,” said Phelps.
Today, by sharing his experience he has the chance to reach people and save lives – “and that’s way more powerful,” he said.
“Those moments and those feelings and those emotions for me are light years better than winning the Olympic gold medal,” said Phelps.
“I am extremely thankful that I did not take my life.”
Let’s not pretend that did not happen. Don’t let the hype machine negate the names of Olympians who took their own lives. A quick search yields several names to start:
- pairs figure skater Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya, age 20
- track cyclist Kelly Catlin, age 23
- freestyle skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, age 29
Indeed, Michael Phelps narrated and co-produced the 2020 HBO documentary “The Weight of Gold,” to warn of the “epidemic” of suicide and depression in Olympic athletes’ ranks. The Olympic organization was sufficiently aware and attuned, in advance of Tokyo, that the U.S. Olympic team gave a baseline mental health assessment to all their team members before traveling to Japan.
The only thing that kept Olympic figure skater Gracie Gold from killing herself was her twin sister. What kept Michael Phelps alive was checking into a treatment center after his second DUI left him contemplating if he should “just end it all.”
[ . . . ]
While mental illness can affect anyone, the athletes contend that Olympians may be especially vulnerable due to their innate natures, public and financial pressures, a lack of identity outside of sport, the post-Olympic crash, and a lack of mental-health resources.
“Being an Olympian is advertised as this amazing thing, and they leave out all of the side effects,” including eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, Gold said in the film. “And then when all those side effects do happen, there’s nothing in play to help you.”
Let’s not pretend, along with the leftist sports media and woke corporate sponsors, that Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are trailblazers or the sponsors are standing by their celebrity spokeswomen for bravely bringing up a taboo subject. Doing so dishonors the lives of other elite athletes saved or lost, along with all the private struggles of forgotten people not of interest to the corporate media hype machine, including social media moguls.
Věra Čáslavská: Real Brave 1968 Olympian
Věra Čáslavská was a Czechoslovakian gymnast who stunned the Russians with her performance in Tokyo 1964, winning three gold medals, including individual all-around gold. In 1968, months before the Olympics, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia to put down a liberalizing socialist government and youth revolt. Věra not only associated herself publicly with the reform movement, but she also fled into the forests to do improvised training, since the gymnasiums were under Russian control. Credit to the official Olympics organization for telling the truth:
Čáslavská was hardly an unknown. She was the defending all-around champion, having won three gold medals in the Tokyo Games four years before.The previous year, she had secured two perfect tens at the European Championships, and she was on her way to a historic achievement of winning each major all-around title from one Olympic Games, through World Championships and European Championships, and on to the next Olympics. No other female gymnast, before or since, has managed that.
The world knew that Čáslavská was a supreme athlete. What made her success and appearances in Mexico so much more dramatic was the backdrop – what was happening in her country at the time.
For, just two months before the Games, Soviet tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia. Having campaigned against Soviet involvement in her country, she was fearful of arrest and went into hiding for three weeks, keeping fit by lifting sacks of potatoes. Finally, the government assured her she could indeed join the rest of the team in Mexico.
She emerged to win four gold medals, two silvers and the adoration of the Mexican crowd. They gave her a succession of standing ovations, and she responded by using the Mexican Hat Dance as the music for one of her routines. Amid all that success, she retained her all-around title – becoming the first woman to do so.What’s more, she got married in Mexico City just 24 hours after ending her competition. Her husband was the Czech 1500m champion Josef Odlozil and a crowd of 10,000 turned up to wish them well.
Her success, though, did not win her favour with the Soviet authorities, who refused to give Čáslavská a job, despite her achievements.
Věra Čáslavská died in 2016, and Reuters told the truth:
Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, her country’s greatest Olympian and a powerful voice in its struggle against Soviet occupation, has died aged 74 of pancreatic cancer.
One of only two women to win back-to-back gold medals as best all-round gymnast, Caslavska took seven golds in all at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and the 1968 Games in Mexico City.
In the latter she competed against and beat Soviet athletes just weeks after Warsaw Pact tanks led by the Red Army swept into then Czechoslovakia to put down attempts to reform Communist rule.
“We went to Mexico determined to sweat blood to defeat the invaders’ representatives,” she told news website Aktualne.cz in a 2014 interview.
A lasting memory of those games is Caslavska’s silent protest of bowing her head on the podium when the Soviet anthem played – echoing the more celebrated image of U.S. sprinter Tommie Smith’s Black Power salute in solidarity with African American civil rights.
[ . . . ]
Caslavska almost failed to make it to the 1968 Games after warnings she might face arrest sent her into hiding, forcing her to train in a forest for three weeks before state authorities allowed her to join the team in Mexico.
Following her triumph there, Caslavska was expelled from the Czech sports union and ostracized for criticizing the 1968 invasion and refusing to withdraw her signature from the Prague Spring protest movement’s “Manifesto of 2000 Words” against Soviet interference.
From 1974 she trained other gymnasts at home and, between 1979-1981, also in Mexico.
Speaking of communist oppression, Suni Lee, the 2021 women’s all-around gymnastics gold medalist is the daughter of a man and woman who escaped Laos.
Suni Lee, an 18-year-old Team USA gymnast from Minnesota, just took home the gold medal for the women’s gymnastics all-around at the Tokyo Olympics. She got there with hard work, perseverance and support from her family – especially her dad, John.
Lee is the first Hmong-American Olympian, with both parents immigrating to the U.S. from Laos. She was born Sunisa Phabsomphou to her mother, Yeev.
When she was 2 years old, Yeev met John Lee, a recently divorced dad with two children, and began dating him, according to an ESPN interview with the family. The pair never married, but Suni considers John her dad – even changing her last name to Lee.
[ . . . ]
And in 2019, John suffered an injury of his own, falling off a ladder and becoming paralyzed from the chest down, CBS Minnesota reports.
[ . . . ]
Suni also won gold on uneven bars at the 2019 US Championships – even though she had a partially-healed hairline fracture in her tibia. She dedicate the victory to her father. “I was thinking of my dad the whole time, and to do it for him because I knew that he would be so proud,” she said, according to Olympics.com.
Suni Lee carried that attitude forward into 2020:
Still, less than two months ago the 18-year-old gymnast hobbled around the podium at the U.S. championships, getting by more on grit than anything else.
[ . . . ]
Even though the pain in Lee’s foot eased — funny how it seemed to get better the more she trained — she arrived in Japan figuring her best shot was at a silver medal. Sure, she’d beaten good friend and reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles during the final day of the U.S. Olympic Trials last month, but that was an anomaly, right?
Maybe the truth, the whole truth, is that time and fame caught up with Simone Biles, an old woman in the sport, and the 18-year-old Suni Lee was trained and ready for her own golden hour.Published in