Thursday, May 23, 2024

Simone Biles is stepping into the Olympic spotlight again

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SPRING, Texas — Simone Biles is not “cured.” A cure implies finality. An ultimate and decisive victory.


What You Need To Know

  • Simone Biles arrived as the face of the Summer Games only to withdraw from multiple competitions, including the team final, when her body simply stopped doing what her brain was asking it to
  • Biles will compete for the first time in 2024 at this weekend’s U.S. Classic
  • Biles was in therapy before Tokyo but had paused treatment before heading overseas. With millions watching, she walked off the floor after one wayward vault in the women’s team final and called her family at home in Texas
  • The U.S. Classic this weekend in Connecticut. The U.S. Championships later this month. The Olympic Trials in late June. One turn, one routine, one rotation, one meet at a time. With all the tools — including her therapist — at the ready

If the gymnastics superstar has learned anything in the three years since those strange, uncertain days in Tokyo when she put her mental health and personal safety ahead of her pursuit of more Olympic glory, it is that the battle to protect yourself is never really over. Never fully won.

It’s a lesson she learned in front of the entire world in Japan, where Biles arrived as the face of the Summer Games only to withdraw from multiple competitions, including the team final, when her body simply stopped doing what her brain was asking it to.

Biles blamed it on “ the twisties.” On the surface, she was right. Yet they sprang from something deeper and harder to define.

“She can’t even explain it (and) the doctors she sees probably can’t even explain it to her,” said Laurent Landi, who along with his wife Cecile has coached Biles since 2017. “It’s a trauma that happened to her and that came at a bad time and she could not handle it. It’s as simple as this. She could not function. She could not be a gymnast at that time.”

Biles will compete for the first time in 2024 at this weekend’s U.S. Classic. Getting this far has been difficult. It has required a new mindset, at times a literal mother’s touch and constant vigilance to work on herself, work she now understands has no expiration date.

Biles tried to take all the outsized attention before Tokyo in stride. At some point, the pent-up emotions and aggressions she felt caused her to “ crack.”

Biles was in therapy before Tokyo but had paused treatment before heading overseas. With millions watching, she walked off the floor after one wayward vault in the women’s team final and called her family at home in Texas.

Nellie Biles picked up the phone and heard her daughter on the other end saying over and over through tears “Mom, I really cannot do this. I’m lost, I cannot do this.”

Biles pulled out of a handful of finals before returning to earn a bronze on the balance beam, a medal the most decorated gymnast in the history of the sport has called one of the most important of her career. As frightening as the experience was, it made Biles realize mental health isn’t something she could ignore.

“I couldn’t run away from it, you know,” Biles told The Associated Press. “I just owned it and said ‘Hey, this is what I’m going through. This is the help that I’m going to get.'”

Help that has propelled Biles back to a familiar spot: atop her sport with another Olympics in the offing. Biles firmly believes she’s in a better place this time around, thanks in part to weekly meetings with her therapist.

Last fall in Antwerp, Belgium, Biles walked into a nearly empty arena during podium training before the world championships, her first team competition since Tokyo. Something about the scene evoked, as Nellie Biles puts it, “a PTSD moment.” Biles ran off the floor to gather herself following a trigger she never saw coming.

Biles pushed through thanks in part to the decision to have a FaceTime meeting with her therapist, something she rarely did close to competitions before beginning the practice ahead of the U.S. Classic in Chicago last summer.

“I know how important it is for me to stay present, mindful and not be too anxious,” she said. “So yes, we will keep that up.”

There were other comforts of home in Belgium. Every day, Nellie Biles made her way to Simone’s hotel room and spent 30-45 minutes braiding her daughter’s hair, a first.

“My daughter is (27) and I know (she) can braid her own hair,” Nellie Biles said. “But it’s just that touch, that togetherness. It’s that bonding. It’s what she needed and it worked.”

The meet ended the way so many have during Biles’ decade-long run at the top: with a fistful of medals and the stage set for a potentially historic Olympic year.

Biles married current Chicago Bears safety Jonathan Owens a year ago and the two are building a house in the Houston suburbs. In a way, she is like so many other 20-something newlyweds. Former Olympic teammate MyKayla Skinner welcomed a daughter last fall. There is part of Biles that feels like “that’s what I should be doing.”

Instead, she’s “still flipping out here,” still training alongside other Olympic hopefuls, many of whom are nearly a decade younger and grew up idolizing her.

Why is she still putting herself through this?

“I think everything I’ve been through, I want to push the limits,” she said. “I want to see how far I can go. I want to see what I’m still capable of so once I step away from this sport, I can truly be happy with my career and say I gave it my all.”

She is aware of what may await this summer. That the millions who were riveted by what happened in Tokyo — from the throngs who supported her to the critics on social media who branded her a quitter or worse — will tune in to see if she cracks again.

Those closest to Biles believe she is better prepared to handle whatever may come.

“She knows something like (Tokyo) can happen because it did happen,” Landi said. “So it’s just like, ‘OK, I’m going to be careful, I’m going to follow the same protocol every time and then I’m going to avoid (the pitfalls)’ and that’s all you can do.”

The U.S. Classic this weekend in Connecticut. The U.S. Championships later this month. The Olympic Trials in late June. One turn, one routine, one rotation, one meet at a time. With all the tools — including her therapist — at the ready.

“I feel very confident with where I’m at mentally and physically, that (Tokyo) is not going to happen again just because we have put in the work,” she said.

Biles says she has lost count of the number of people who have told her “because of you, I’m getting the proper help that I deserve.”

It can be jarring in a way. She never set out to become a face of this movement. It happened anyway. That’s the blessing of the last Olympics that far outweighs a medal.

“As unfortunate as it (was) … it’s exciting because I know that by speaking out it’s helping other people,” Biles said. “And that’s what I’ve always wanted to do, inside this sport and outside this sport.”

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