Ever been caught in a big wave that spun you around so bad you panicked, not knowing which way led to the surface and oxygen? If so, you sort of know how Simone Biles felt when she bailed out of her vault during the women’s gymnastics team final this week.
Biles planned to do an Amanar, a vault with 2.5 twists, but she stopped rotating a whole twist early and somehow walked off the mat uninjured after a low and out-of-control landing. After the team final, Biles told reporters, “I had no idea where I was in the air. I could have hurt myself.”
Biles said her Olympic teammates had seen her struggling with “a little bit of the twisties” in practice. “She was giving us a little heart attack,” Jordan Chiles said. After Biles warmed up her vault in the team final and had the same problem with getting lost in the air, teammate Sunisa Lee asked her, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Biles answered.
The twisties are gymnastics’ version of the yips, the same type of mental block that golfers, pitchers, and kickers struggle with, but on a seriously dangerous level. The yips means Jon Lester doesn’t get a runner out on an attempted steal. The twisties means Simone Biles lands on her neck.
“It’s when you are getting ready to do something, and you have done it, how many times, especially her, and you get in the air and you just can’t or you don’t remember,” says gymnast Chellsie Memmel, who won a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics. “Your body and your brain are fighting each other and it is completely and utterly disorienting because you really don’t know where you are in the air. It is incredibly scary and incredibly dangerous with how much height that she is getting on vault or on floor.”
Memmel struggled to find the words to accurately describe this phenomenon, which is feared and dreaded by gymnasts at every age and level. “It is just crazy,” she said. “It is really hard.”
Memmel was at the Team USA watch party in Orlando when she saw Biles’s shocking vault. She noticed Biles’s head positioning was different, a dead giveaway for the twisties. As soon as Biles mentioned the twisties, gymnasts used Twitter to tell their own stories, replying to Washington Post journalist Emily Giambalvo’s tweet.
Memmel’s own case of the twisties hit in her early teens, when she was learning a triple-full (a tumbling pass on floor where the gymnast twists three times in the air). She knew exactly how to do the skill and the punch (bouncing off the floor to enter a skill, not jumping) but then … she just couldn’t actually do it. And she didn’t know why. “Your headspace going in is that you are going to do it and then as you are punching and going into it, you just don’t,” she said. “Your body and mind is like, ‘No!’”
Memmel is back competing again after nine years retired from elite gymnastics, and she still hasn’t tried a triple-full since. That case of the twisties became a permanent block for her, and she had to work around it for the rest of her elite gymnastics career by doing two or two-and-half twists, and figuring out floor routines that scored high enough without needing a triple full.
For some gymnasts, the twisties only affect one particular motion, like a specific skill on floor or a certain vault. For others, it can spill into every twisting motion and affect all of their gymnastics.
Memmel has no idea what causes the twisties, but she does know that stress only makes it worse. “If you are forcing it and overthinking, then you start to get stressed about it, and stress doesn’t help anything in any of our bodies,” she said. “You do think like, ‘I am being silly, why is this happening?’ You think all of those things, but none of those thoughts actually help.”
“What could possibly be a minor case, it could be even worse because of the immense amount of pressure.”
Mark Williams is the Oklahoma men’s gymnastics coach and has been to five Olympics as a coach. He knows the twisties well, and said he’s coached some gymnasts who have to stop competing certain events altogether while they work through it. And there’s no formula for how to get past them either. “Some days they can be like, ‘Oh I’m fine today,’ and then they might have it again the next day and then go back to being fine. I have had a kid that it took about a month to figure out complete confidence when they were twisting in the air.”
Williams said the twisties are the most common for gymnasts who are learning advanced skills, like when a gymnast progresses from doing a backflip to a full (one twist, rotating around the body’s axis), or full to a double full. Most commonly, gymnasts with twisties will automatically start twisting when they leave the ground to go into a skill, even if they only meant to do a flip.
“You can always do something that scares you and think about it too much and then it doesn’t feel comfortable,” Williams said. “And then you are not even sure about what you are doing anymore.”
The best thing to do, Williams said, is go back to basics and start building up to that skill or motion again. Simple backward rolls can help gymnasts to remember how to flip instead of twist, and a foam training pit is a must for keeping gymnasts with the twisties safe while they work back to full speed. A spokesperson for USAG confirmed to Defector that the women’s training facility in Tokyo does in fact have foam pits.
“The main lesson is to step back and not to try to always power through something like that,” Memmel said. “It is incredibly difficult. It is hard to be patient when you are getting that frustrated. Frustration and stress only make it worse, so trying to really take a step back.”
Memmel competed for USAG when Marta Karolyi was the national team coordinator, presiding over a USAG regime that did not protect its athletes, allowing former team doctor Larry Nassar to sexually abuse gymnasts, and pushing gymnasts to compete through severe injuries (see: Kerri Strug’s broken ankle vault). She herself competed the uneven bars for the team final in the ‘08 Olympics with a broken bone in her ankle. Karolyi retired after the 2016 Olympics, where Biles won gold in the all-around and team final. This version of USAG, with new leadership, was supportive of Biles’s decision to withdraw. What if Biles had done this when Karolyi was still in charge? “I hate to say it, but I don’t think it would have been received that way, with the outpouring of love and support,” Memmel said. “I think it would have been received much differently.”
Would Biles have even been able to make the choice to withdraw?
“That’s where I am not sure,” Memmel said. “If she was under Aimee [Boorman, Biles’s longtime former coach], she would have done all she could to protect her. The personal coach would have stepped up for her, so I would still like to think she would have been protected, but you ultimately just don’t know.”
Biles’s decision Tuesday was one to protect herself and her teammates’ chance to medal. She also withdrew from the individual all-around competition, and teammate Sunisa Lee won the gold. Biles has not yet made a decision whether she will compete in the four event finals, which take place this Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Olympic individual athlete MyKayla Skinner posted to her Instagram story that she had delayed her flight home. She’d be the U.S.’s backup to Biles in the vault final, since she placed fourth overall in that event in qualifying.
Biles could decide to compete a single event, like beam or bars, or none at all.
“I wish her the best,” Memmel said. “I want to see her get through this.”