Looking back at Tokyo and what we’ve learned — Other gym news —Thoughts from Dr. Sam, Ph.D.
Revisiting Tokyo, what we knew then, and what we know now about what Simone Biles was going through. Plus, news from around the sport
One year ago, we had all just watched the women’s gymnastics team final at the Tokyo Olympics. We saw Simone Biles race down the vault runway, hit the horse, then seemingly lose her way in mid-air.
We held our breaths as she somehow wrenched around a Yurchenko 1.5, landed in a deep squat, walked off the floor, and told her coach, Cecile Landi, and the team doctor that she was finished competing.
We saw Jordan Chiles, who had not warmed up bars, told by Landi to step up on that event, and she did. Chiles also filled Biles’ spot on beam. Suni Lee took her spot on floor.
Grace McCallum, who along with Chiles and Lee had likely expected Biles’ performances to take some of the heat of them, was thrown directly into the fire.
Out of it all, a silver medal.
We were starting to learn what the twisties were, that day after the team final. We were arguing with friends on social media who dared to say that Biles was a quitter.
We had seen, on the world’s biggest stage for our sport, what happened when a gymnast suffered a mental health breakdown and was able to say that she was risking her life, physically, to continue battling mentally.
CW: Discussion of mental health, suicidal ideation
A few months earlier, we saw Naomi Osaka leave the French Open, citing the need to protect her mental health. She had been fined for refusing to do press, after saying she felt that participating in press conferences adversely affected her matches, and decided not to participate in the event at all. Like Biles, her exit was marked by accusations that she just wasn’t up to par.
Michael Phelps had spoken out about his depression and his struggle with suicidal ideation. So did his teammate, Alison Schmidt, and the Olympic champion Missy Franklin. Many former Olympians across sports talked about post-Olympic depression and what it had done to them. We had heard from pros out of the Big Four sports too: Kevin Love, Eddie George, Ryan Sherriff and Stephen Johns, to name just a few.
But Biles’ exit from the competition floor was different. She was actively competing at the time, for one, and we saw her struggle close-up on an international broadcast as she tried to land that Amanar-turned-1.5.
And she spoke out, loudly, about how being the focus of the American team had affected her mentally. She’s still at it, a year on.
And one year later, much has changed. There is new leadership at USAG. The former head of the women’s program there stepped down after his strategy of relying on Biles crumbled before everyone’s eyes. The new leadership (well, two of them) have talked a good game about valuing mental health. Biles has yet to return to competition, and two of her Olympic teammates, McCallum and Lee, both rising college sophomores, have said publicly they will not compete in elite again until they are ready.
And as the elite season ramps up this week with the U.S. Classic, it’s good to look back on what we witnessed a year ago as a high-water mark that signified the need for a real change in the sport’s approach to mental wellness.
If you have played sports, at any level, at any time in your life, you know that your mental health absolutely affects your performance. Even if you are a person who performs better under duress, that duress is still affecting you because you are working around it. And that’s pretty key, because the definition of poor mental health is not the same for any two people nor does the same mental-health diagnosis affect any two people the same way.
Poor mental health does not indicate weakness, and stepping away to treat it is not indicative of laziness or a quitter’s attitude. Talking about it takes strength and courage, and could open the door for someone else to speak about their own problems and receive help. Let’s turn Simone Biles’ moment in Tokyo into a lodestar, not a nadir, for our sport.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, or chat at 988lifeline.org.
If you are struggling with your mental health and want to talk and/or receive referrals for help, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Other gym news
Rachel Baumann has us all shook with her announcement that she’ll take her fifth year at…Florida. Well, at least her parents can stop wearing the half-Florida, half-Georgia shirts they’ve sported over the last four years and go full Gator.
In less shocking Florida fifth-year news, Savannah Schoenherr made it official.
Greg Marsden subtweeted Dan Baker, the head of development for USAG’s women’s program, after Baker skirted a question posed by Jessica O’Beirne of GymCastic about whether he supported a woman’s right to choose.
Randy Lane of LIU, the first college coach to publicly announce his support for choice and to say that he would help any NCAA athlete to access abortion care, was quoted in this Washington Post article about the NCAA’s lack of leadership on the issue.
Nia Dennis talked to the LA Times about what’s next for her. (This article is behind a paywall.)
Trinity Thomas is a co-2022 SEC Woman of the Year.
Suni Lee showed us a new beam mount she’s working on.
Morgan Ross left Yale, where she was assistant coach, to take the same position at San Jose State.
Ella Kate Parker has left CGI for WOGA.
I hope for her sake it means being more known for her gymnastics than for vaulting with her leo in her mouth.
The Norwegian Gymnastics Federation withdrew this week as host of the 2022 FIG Congress, allegedly over the FIG’s refusal to remove delegates from Russia and Belarus from some of its committees. Norway’s government will not allow Russian or Belarussian delegates.
Bailie Key graduated from Alabama with a nursing degree.
The Justice Department has begun work to settle claims by the more than 100 gymnasts who are suing the agency over its failures in handling the Larry Nassar case. (This article is behind a paywall.)
Former gymnastics coach Terry Gray was sentenced in Las Vegas this week to a maximum of eight years in prison on lewdness and child abuse charges.
Five at The IX: Dr. Sam, Ph.D.
Dr. Sam is a well-known name among the gymternet, at least those of us who hang out on Twitter at least some of the time (guilty). Dr. Sam lives in Washington, D.C., and is an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the State Department. When she lived in New York, she helped found the NYC Gym Nerds community (which former Five at The IX guest @lenibriscoe now moderates. Small world!). She’s a triple Gator – that is, she has bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as her Ph.D. from the University of Florida. Which explains why she’s so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Florida gymnastics! She did gymnastics herself for about five years as a kid and took adult gymnastics classes later on. I was excited to connect with Dr. Sam over Twitter and thrilled that she agreed to be interviewed. This interview has been edited for clarity.
What’s your most controversial gymnastics hot take?
Dr. Sam: Really trying to get me cancelled by the gymternet here haha! Likely not that controversial, but I do think that gymnasts should have to show artistry and proper body position and posture on beam and floor. More deductions for hunched shoulder and not fully using the upper body during choreography! Oh, and most ring leaps shouldn’t get credit ha.
What is your favorite skill to watch (or do), and favorite apparatus?
Dr. Sam: My favorite skill to watch is absolutely an Onodi, and my favorite apparatus is beam. My favorite skill to do was always a back walkover.
Which gymnast would you next award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to, and why?
Dr. Sam: This is such an interesting question. Honestly, I think that it’s such a high honor that I cannot really think of another gymnast who has reached the level of Simone in both performance and activism. I think I would say Dominique Dawes for not only her Olympic medals but also for her work speaking out about the culture in gymnastics and starting her own gym to try to build a program with the positive culture she speaks about.
How did you get into gymnastics, and when did you start writing/posting about it?
Dr. Sam: I did gymnastics when I was a kid and I grew up in the Maryland suburbs around the time that Elise Ray and Dominique Dawes were elite gymnasts, so that was likely a perfect storm for a lifetime love of gymnastics. After I stopped taking gymnastics classes, I continued to dance. As a flexible kid, I always retained some of the simpler flexibility skills like cartwheels and walkovers.
When I moved to Gainesville in 2010, I started following the Gators and NCAA.
When I moved to NYC from Florida in 2018, I felt a lot of separation from gymnastics so I started posting about it a lot more and I found the gymternet! I enjoyed being able to use social media to stay up to date with the Gators without being in Gainesville. Because I was posting about the Gators all the time, Alligator Army’s editor reached out to me and asked if I would like to cover gymnastics more formally and the rest is history.
Favorite all-time Gator gymnast?
Dr. Sam: This is nearly impossible! There are too many greats! I think I have to go with Megan Skaggs. Not only does she have many of the qualities of a gymnast that I like to watch – the flexibility, toe point, and poise – but, she is also extremely well-spoken, a great interview, and really passionate about making the world a better place.
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