Somewhere in Tokyo, in a gym full of big, super-soft landing mats, Simone Biles is trying to get her Olympics back on track, working “day by day, turn by turn” to chase away the “twisties.”
But America’s greatest gymnast appears to be running out of time if she wants to compete again in Japan.
Biles, the four-time Olympic champion, has been the most talked-about athlete of the Tokyo Games after dropping out of the team competition after the opening vault and then deciding not to defend her all-around title from Rio.
On Thursday night she spoke directly to her 6.1 million fans on Instagram to explain what the problem was and what she’s been doing to overcome it. Typically, for the woman who led the fight against the abuse of young female gymnasts, she gave herself nowhere to hide.
The now-deleted post on Instagram Stories featured a couple of training videos in which Biles showed herself trying, and failing, to land exercises on the uneven bars during training Thursday. She annotated the videos herself, explaining what’s going wrong, how she’s no longer in control of her twists, and has no idea how she is going to land when she is in the air.
“For anyone saying I quit, I didn’t quit. My mind and body are simply not in sync,” she wrote.
Biles’ problems at the Olympics, which she says really began after the Tokyo preliminaries, have been a huge talking point both in Japan and back home in the U.S. As critics accused her of abandoning her team, fellow gymnasts swung behind her to insist that she had made the only possible decision. They said “the twisties”—when a gymnast loses her air sense—is not really equivalent to a golfer’s “yips”; given the inherent risks of the sport, it can be catastrophic.
After inviting questions from her 6.1 million Instagram followers, Biles said suffering from twisties was “the strangest & weirdest thing.”
“Literally cannot tell up from down,” she said. “It’s the craziest feeling ever. Literally 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…”
The 24-year-old could still take part in Tokyo’s individual events, which start Sunday, but she said she needed special facilities—pits full of thick, soft mats—to be able to train safely. “There is a place in Japan that has been so sweet to open their doors for me to train,” she wrote, not naming the gym in question but promising to thank them when the Games are over.
Time is not on her side. Biles said that she has previously suffered from the twisties, on the floor and vault rather than in all four disciplines, and it had taken her some time to recover.
“Typically for me it’s usually two or more weeks when I’ve had them before,” she wrote. “Honestly no telling… time frame something you have take literally day by day, turn by turn.”