Bubbly Biles Settled for Bronze

Many felt the staging of the Tokyo Olympic Games was a disaster waiting to happen amid a pandemic.

But once they got underway, any ill-feeling and gloom were cast aside as we celebrated athletic prowess on the grandest stage.

While race events in athletics, cycling and swimming are exciting for their speed, power and tactics, gymnastics, BMX, and skateboarding take physical and mental skills to another level with their complex fearsome moves and creative tricks.

Many had their eyes on poster girl Simone Biles who arrived in Tokyo with the goal of mirroring or beating her performance in Rio.

Photo by David Hoffman - Unsplash

To watch her perform in Rio was mesmerising – she seemed faster, stronger and more consistent than others, flipping and twisting like no other gymnast. A superhuman effort. Entertainment at its best. Precision timing with a reward of four golds and one bronze.

An extraordinary high bar to reach.

Though Tokyo provided quite a different story; one that Biles will remember for suffering from the dreaded twisties during her vault routine. This mentally debilitating phenomenon is associated with a loss of spatial awareness; a disconnect with mind and body.

While it might be second nature for gymnasts to twist, flip and, rotate, disorientation in the air is terrifying. And it’s terrifying because it’s dangerous. There is no little - if any - margin for error to think or adjust. It’s simply left to fate and gravity to deliver a safe landing.

According to her former coach Aimee Boorman, Biles had learnt with ease by watching others and copying them. However natural or experienced a gymnast may be, a mistimed move can end their career in an instant. Biles was clearly and understandably unsettled by the unfamiliar experience.

After consulting with her team, Biles made a brave decision to step back from events. Her withdrawal prompted mixed reactions from supporters and critics. The latter questioned her character, labelling Biles a quitter or bottler. Aren’t athletes meant to suck it up and get on with it? I wonder how many of these critics can touch their toes, let alone stand on a balance beam for a single second.

When you’ve trained a lifetime and reached the pinnacle of your sport you’re expected to deliver. The demands are relentless. With an extended Olympic training cycle the route to Tokyo has been long, arduous and uncertain. An absence of spectators, Covid testing and the scrutiny of uncontrolled social media play their part too.

Behind the entertainment is an athlete who is bubbly and upbeat on the outside. Behind this athlete is Simone Biles a human being with a unique story of heart rendering personal life events. She was one of a number of siblings born to a father who abandoned the family and a mother who struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol. She was placed in and out of foster homes until adopted by her maternal grandparents and refers to them as mom and dad.

In addition to the unconventional early years of childhood and a chance introduction to gymnastics at the age of six, she made a critical decision to be home-schooled to allow time for 32 hours of gymnastics training and competition – a tough decision with more sacrifices.

At just 24 years of age, Biles has experienced an extraordinary life of extremes. She returned to the Olympics in Tokyo as a voice for sexual abuse survivors of former gymnastics physician Larry Nassar.

Biles was right to withdrew to protect her mental health. You can’t put a price on mental health and, no medal whatever colour can compensate. There’s no doubt Biles would have had mixed emotions before making her final decision., but I’m sure it would’ve been well-thought out. Time will tell if it affects selection for future events. That said, there will be no athletic future for Biles if she doesn’t keep her mental wellbeing intact.

If her resilience is in question, just look at how quickly Biles bounced back to claim a bronze before the curtain closed on Tokyo. She owed that moment to herself.

A champion in her own right. A leader. Success beyond the podium!