TOKYO — At the Summer Olympics on June 29, the women’s all-around gymnastics winner was … not Simone Biles.
The title and gold medal went to Sunisa Lee of the U.S.
Biles’ absence hung over one of the most anticipated events at the Games, an event she won at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. Biles withdrew after first dropping out of the women’s team finals, while it was underway, earlier in the week, citing mental health challenges.
But she has acknowledged suffering from a phenomenon known as “the twisties.”
In her one, and perhaps only finals performance of these Olympic Games, Biles launched herself into a vault that, once airborne, would require 2 1/2 twists of her body. As she recounted afterward, it didn’t work.
“I was trying a 2 1/2,” Biles said, “and I ended up doing a 1 1/2. Just got a little bit lost in the air.”
An ocean away, in California, former competitive gymnast Catherine Burns watched and winced. “I know that feeling so deeply in my body,” Burns said, “of being, like, I’m lost, I came out [of the move] too early, where am I? And all of that is happening in the course of split seconds, that recognition of something’s not right and I need to be able to complete the trick without injuring myself.”
Burns competed through high school in gymnastics and diving. She was nowhere near the elite world Biles inhabits. But anyone who has honed their airborne skills in sport can experience the frightening sensation of suddenly being lost in air.
It’s called the twisties.
“You can get it on twisting moves,” Burns said, “but you can also get it on any kind of rotational move. [And] you can get lost in the air on a really simple trick that you’ve done a thousand times before.”
Burns said gymnasts, especially elite ones, do so much work to be able to gain muscle memory and awareness of knowing where their body is in the air.
“Having that spatial recognition, being able to see yourself doing the trick, it becomes a point where it’s like built into your body,” Burns said, “and you do it sort of without thinking about it cognitively. And then sometimes you get these twisties [and] it’s sort of like a mental block that some people refer to as if you’re starting to cognitively think about [it] again.”
Burns likened it to other things we do over and over, with their execution locked into our muscle memory. Similar to walking down a flight of stairs.
After Biles withdrew from the team final on Sunday, she acknowledged to reporters “having a little bit of the twisties.” And she’s had them before. She told Olympics.com that at the beginning of 2019, she forgot how to twist and flip.
A teammate from the 2016 Olympics, Laurie Hernandez, called the twisties painful. “Hated it, so much,” Hernandez said, adding, “it actively makes you feel like you’re not the caliber of athlete that you are.”