The Layer of Fear: Biles Changes the Conversation

By Gina Pongetti Angeletti, MPT MA, CSCS, ART-Cert. 

Imagine perfection. Making it years with practices stacked one on top of the other, and hoping, wishing that your body holds up for one more day. Your best day. When everything is on the line in front of the entire world.

There are many types of fear in sports: disappointing coaches or parents, the weight of representing your country, not becoming what was expected of you, losing or disappointing sponsors, returning to the sport after injury and fearing that you will not be as good, or at least, as good as your last performance. Or what the world remembers – which is normally your highest high or your lowest low with not much in between. 

Arguably, there are very few sports where physical fear, or injury and peril is an issue in the way that gymnastics, diving, and downhill skiing for example, are.

This added layer of fear is a reason why gymnastics is truly one of the toughest sports in the world. No one is afraid to blow a knee out running. Or break their shoulder swimming. Not taking anything away from these sports, as they are grueling in their own right, but that added layer of trepidation for most, isn’t there.

Refer back, please to the article on the Physics of Simone. It explains a lot. 

Gymnastics is designed by levels for a reason. As you advance in skills, you move up to the next level. Like building a house from the foundation, it’s a progression–based path. If the skills and scores and safety levels aren’t there, a gymnast does not advance. Years of work go into the skills that eventually make it to the Elite level. But also, gymnasts are humans and not robots. The mental aspect is critical in all levels, and particularly at the Elite level when the skills are at the most advanced end of the spectrum.

Today, in team finals at the Tokyo Olympics, it all came down to just that. Physically, hundredths of a second can be the difference between a torn ACL and a perfect landing, or making a decision to pull out of a skill safely to avoid injury. It’s a constant thought in the headspace of any athlete. Even for Simone Biles

“I don’t trust myself,” Biles said to her coach, Ceceile Landi after pulling out of a vault (intended to have two and half twists) mid air and “only” performing one and half with a huge lunge forward instead. And that statement was enough. 

After today’s competition, where Biles’ three teammates secured the silver medal while counting her vault score only, we will look at the sport, and these women who are people, not robots, in a different light. How we should have been looking at them all along, really.

The pressure of staying safe and competing has been in Simone’s mind for years, especially as she created new skills that are quite literally death-defying. Adding another twist or two or a second flip. A double double off beam, a triple double on floor, a Yurchenko double pike. And the list goes on and on. 

And while Simone loves to give the crowd a show, she has smartly also tried to work within the limits of what shes feeling in the moment. Take the Olympic Trials as an example. Many fans were eagerly anticipating the Yurchenko double pike. But, for a variety of reasons, she chose not to compete it. In consultation with her coaches, she made the decision that was best in the moment, even though she had been training it successfully during the season. Those are the types of calls that are critical in the sport of gymnastics.

Safety reigns physically over risk many a time. Physically, we see limping. You can revisit the Dalaloyan story for that angle.

Mentally, however, there is no bandage or wrap to let anyone know an athlete is struggling mentally. There is no tape to make people aware that you aren’t 100%. Sure, you can see it in people’s eyes, especially if you have known them forever, worked on them for years, and had them trust in your care. But even then, the really good athletes can hide it. 

Why? 

Expectations. The fear of letting people down sometimes is so much stronger than the practical understanding that there is physical risk. 

Today, Biles changed that conversation. 

“I just… after the performance that I did [on vault], I didn’t want to go into any other events second-guessing myself.”

Her teammates were right there to support her as were her coaches, Cecile and Laurant Landi, and the rest of the U.S. Staff including Tom Forster and Annie Heffernon. There was never a question as to whether they would listen to her. It was a question of making sure this is what she wanted. As Heffernon said, they saw it the back gym. They watched her warm up. And then, they changed to really watching. Honing in on non-verbals, what she was saying, and what she was doing. At that point, Biles made the decision easy.  

“I thought it was better if I took a step back and to let these girls go out there and let them do the job. Tonight, they get a gold medal from me. They never gave up.”

“I don’t trust myself anymore… maybe it’s getting older. There were a couple of days when everybody tweets you and you feel the weight of the world. We’re not just athletes, we’re people… and sometimes you just have to step back. I didn’t want to go out and do something stupid and get hurt. I feel like a lot of athletes speaking up has really helped. It’s so big, it’s the Olympic Games. At the end of the day, we don’t want to be carried out on a stretcher. You have to be there 100 percent or 120 percent or you’re going to hurt yourself.”

Every athlete knows that on the road to greatness, there are times when you doubt yourself. There are times when you say, ‘I don’t think I can do this today’ and a coach says, ‘yes, you can.’

That’s great when learning a beam series. Or trying to get a kid whom coaches know is ready to do a major skill without a spot. But there is a fine line between encouraging and forcing. And Biles just knew. 

She told the world that yes, tennis superstar and Olympian Naomi Osaka was influential on her. Maybe her forthrightness with her issues allowed a platform and a societal space to be more open and honest and know that acceptance is waiting. Maybe she also showed Biles that weeks ago, when she was struggling, the world went on when she pulled out. Osaka, then, took time to care of herself and came to Japan to compete. She lit the cauldron in the Opening Ceremony. Today in the third round, she lost in an upset and was eliminated.

Biles was disappointed that this had to happen here, especially, at the Olympics. She pushed and pushed, and similar to a tendon hanging on by a thread or a body that does not have rest, there comes a point in time when it quite literally breaks. Biles stopped before that happened. Or, at least, when she heard the cracks. But she took control of her own destiny. Biles did what was best for herself, above anything else. She did not want to get hurt. She did not want to be the one that ‘lost’ the medal for the team (it is a three up, three count situation in team finals so there is no dropping the bottom score like qualifications). 

U.S. Olympian MyKayla Skinner tweeted, “I’m so proud of our girls for fighting to the very end. Each one of them is gold in my eyes. We are all humans… Can’t imagine what Simone is going through. She deserves all the support in the world right now. And still our GOAT!”

“Sending so much support,” tweeted Samantha Peszek, 2008 Olympic Team silver medalist. “It’s hard to imagine all the pressure she’s feeling. The weight of the world can be heavy, so I hope she knows we all love her and are so proud of her.”

It even spreads to disappointing one’s country. Wearing the red, white and blue is a serious earned opportunity that comes with a heavy responsibility, some placed on one’s self and some, in theory in one’s mind, what others place on them. 

“I hope America still loves us,” stated Biles.

Silver medals still shine, and just as bright as gold. This team dug to the depths of their training, their mental toughness and their souls to pull together an unbelievable evening. Biles is proud of them, and we all should be, too. 

Photo by Ricardo Bufolin for Inside Gymnastics

Follow us on Instagram and Twitter @InsideGym for the latest updates leading to the Games and on the scene in Tokyo!

Subscribe now at www.shopinsidenation.com for our Inside Gymnastics magazine Commemorative Olympic Issue!