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Column: Simone Biles needs to focus on herself and not compete again at the Tokyo Olympics

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, center, applauds teammates from the stands.
U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, center, applauds teammates from the stands in Tokyo on Thursday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

I love watching Simone Biles. I also don’t want to see her compete again at the Tokyo Olympics.

For the sake of rebuilding her physical and emotional well-being, for the sake of moving past the frightening disorientation she felt in midair when she performed a dangerously crooked vault in the team event, she should focus on healing rather than competing. She made the right decision on Saturday when she withdrew from Sunday’s vault and uneven bars finals, and she should do the same for the floor exercise final on Monday and the balance beam final on Tuesday.

Biles will be replaced in the vault final by MyKayla Skinner, who had the fourth-highest vault score in qualifying but didn’t automatically make the final because Biles and U.S. teammate Jade Carey finished ahead of her and there’s a two-per-country maximum in event finals.

Biles owes no one anything. After winning 25 world championship medals, five Olympic medals at the 2016 Rio Games and a silver medal here after her resilient teammates regrouped in the wake of her shocking scratch early in the team event, she has nothing more to prove.

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Simone Biles did the right thing by not competing when she believed she couldn’t. But it also tarnishes her legacy as a gymnast.

Biles has “the twisties,” a funny name for a distressing condition she said struck her the morning after she had compiled the top total in Sunday’s qualifying round. What she needs now is to heal on her own timetable and in her own way.

She took the first step by sitting out the rest of the team event on Tuesday and cheering while her teammates won silver. “I didn’t have a bad performance & quit. I’ve had plenty of bad performances throughout my career and finished the competition. I simply got so lost my safety was at risk as well as a team medal,” Biles said on Instagram. “Therefore the girls stepped up and killed the rest of the competition & won silver. QUEENS!!!!”

Later, Biles withdrew from the all-around competition held on Thursday, ending her chances of repeating as Olympic all-around champion. She applauded and yelled while 18-year-old teammate Suni Lee, who had figured on competing for second place until Biles’ withdrawal, emerged with the gold medal. On Friday, Biles posted a video of Lee dancing down a hallway while wearing her medal and added the caption, “The Queen has arrived.”

It would be unfortunate if Biles, a singular and charismatic athlete, doesn’t perform again in Tokyo. But if she does, the result could be tragic.

Simone Biles watches an event after withdrawing.
Simone Biles watches the women’s all-around final after withdrawing from competition on Tuesday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Judging by her responses to fans’ questions on Instagram and by video she posted of her shaky training session at a local gym on Friday (since deleted, but widely preserved), she’s not ready to safely compete. “Literally can not tell up from down,” she responded when asked how she feels when she twists.

“It’s the craziest feeling ever, not having an inch of control over your body. “What’s even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air I also have NO idea how I’m going to land. Or what I’m going to land on. Head/hands/feet/back.”

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A spokeswoman for USA Gymnastics said that according to International Gymnastics Federation rules, the decision to withdraw or substitute an athlete can be made “very close to the time of competition.” The spokeswoman also said Biles is being evaluated daily to determine if she will compete in the other event finals. “We remain in awe of Simone, who continues to handle this situation with courage and grace, and all of the athletes who had stepped up during these unexpected circumstances,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement.

The gym where Biles practiced on Friday put out some soft mats to cushion her rough landings while she worked on regaining her sense of spatial orientation. She took full advantage of those mats. The Olympic practice and competition arenas don’t have similarly forgiving landing spots.

Told that her crashes in the videos were “adorable,” she replied on Instagram, “This ain’t it. … It only looks ‘safe’ because I’m on soft surface. If it was on competition surface it wouldn’t look adorable.”

Gymnasts and coaches explain how many cope with “the twisties,” which prompted Simone Biles to withdraw from team and all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics.

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Video also captured her reducing the number of twists on a dismount from the uneven bars. “For anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit. My mind & body are simply not in sync as you can see here. (I’m supposed to do 1 1/2 more twists),” she said. “I don’t think you realize how dangerous this is on hard/competition surface. Nor do I have to explain why I put health first. Physical health is mental health.”

She has had the twisties before. “It’s honestly petrifying trying to do a skill but not having your mind & body in sync. 10/10 do not recommend,” she said. “Could be triggered by stress I hear but I’m also not sure how true that is.”

It’s worrisome that she described this bout as more extensive than her previous experiences. “BTW it’s never transferred to bars & beam before for me,” she said. “It strictly likes floor & vault. Go figure. The scariest 2. But this time it’s literally on every event, which sucks … really bad.”

In the past, she needed two or more weeks to recover. “Honestly no telling/time frame. Something you have to take literally day by day, turn by turn,” she said.

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Let her take as many days as she needs, no matter that it would mean passing up the chance to pad her medal total.

Based on scores the gymnasts compiled in the qualifying round, the U.S. can replace Biles only in the vault final. The silver lining is that this can become a happy story for Skinner.

Skinner was relegated to alternate status for the 2016 Rio Olympic team in a controversial decision, and she was an alternate again for the 2019 world championships. She wasn’t chosen for the four-woman Tokyo team but was instead given a berth as an event specialist. The 24-year-old was a star at the University of Utah before returning to tougher Olympic-track gymnastics.

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Giving Skinner the chance to compete gives her a chance for a heartwarming ending to a distinguished career. It also gives Biles more time to heal and less stress to face at a time when she needs a break far more than she needs another medal.


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