Both events are essentially focused on flying through the air, demonstrating skills that might be particular challenging and dangerous to perform since Biles reportedly has "the twisties," where, when flying through the air a gymnast loses track of where they are and the body balks at performing a skill that it's done countless times without incident. You don’t know where the ground is until you collide with it — hopefully, if you’re lucky, with your body doing what you’ve trained for even if you’re brain isn’t cooperating.
Considering how bad things can get if a gymnast is even uncertain or nervous about a move, this explanation fills in a lot of the blanks about Biles’ uncharacteristically uneven performance and her subsequent withdrawal from competing in Tokyo following a vault during the team competition on Tuesday that the initially vague reason of concerns for Biles’ mental health had left open.
Biles was slated to do an Amanar with 2.5 twists during her vault during the team completion when she abruptly pulled it into a Yuchenko with only 1.5 twists. There are simply too many stories about top-level gymnasts making mistakes that leave them paralyzed including that of Texas gymnast Julissa Gomez.
Gomez, the talented daughter of former migrant farm worker parents from Laredo who worked hard to give her opportunities in the sport, had come to Houston to train with Bela Karolyi in the mid-1980s but had moved to another coach in part due to his reportedly abusive methods. Despite changing coaches she was still expected to make the U.S. national team and to go to either Seoul in 1988 or the next Olympics, before an accident derailed her career, and her life. While competing in Tokyo at the World Sports Fair in 1988 Gomez injured herself in a vaulting accident, an incident that bears a striking similarity to what Biles seemed to be experiencing on the vault earlier this week.
In May 1988 Gomez was in Tokyo competing at the World Sports Fair where she planned on doing the Yuchenko vault, the one that Biles chose to do instead of the even more difficult Amanar vault she was slated to do. Gomez was later described as being shaky on this vault in particular. “You could tell it was not a safe vault for her to be doing. Someone along the way should have stopped her,” former teammate Chelle Stack recalled.
Despite this concern, Gomez’s coach Al Jong was having her do the move since it yields much higher scores when correctly performed. During practice before the finals, Gomez attempted the vault. Her foot slipped and she slammed headfirst into the vault at high speed, leaving her instantly paralyzed from the neck down. Another accident at a Tokyo hospital deprived her of oxygen, rendering her brain damaged and she died in Houston in 1991. She was only 18 years old.
It's an infamous story that led to some changes in the sport, although the reckoning that has since come for the harsh coaching styles of Bela and Marta Karolyi—and USA Gymnastics in general—in the wake of 2016 revelations of Larry Nassar’s years of sexual abusing the young athletes in his care, was still decades away. Now, however, we are seeing the beginning of the true impact of the Nassar scandal on the gymnastics world. The world’s best gymnast didn’t feel sure of herself and took herself out of the situation , something that would never have been possible during Karolyi era of U.S. women’s gymnastics, as we’ve previously noted.
And now maybe other lessons from tragic occurrences in the sport are beginning to be absorbed. Remembering Gomez and the other gymnasts who experienced similar incidents when pressure from coaches and the sport itself to perform and to push their limits makes Biles’ decision to pull out so far from Tokyo much easier to understand. The twisties issue is the kind of thing that would understandably prompt the world's most awarded gymnast to opt out of continuing with the team competition, the all-around, and now these two other events due to concerns for her mental health. If Biles is not mentally up for this, then the physical long-term price could be truly brutal.
At this point, it’s still unclear if Biles will compete on the balance beam and floor exercises next week. U.S. Olympics officials continue to state that she will be evaluated each day to determine whether she's up for either event. She currently could still come back to the competition next week and become the most medaled Olympian in U.S. history if she even takes bronze.