Simone Biles Opens up About Olympics Mental Health Struggles, Twisties

  • Simone Biles struggled with her mental health and the twisties at the Olympics, though she still won two medals.
  • Now back in Texas, the 24-year-old gymnast opened up about the experience to her mom.
  • “It sucks, but I know I helped a lot of people and athletes speak out about mental health,” Biles said.

Simone Biles won two medals at the Tokyo Olympics, but it was her contribution to the discourse about mental health that took center stage.

The 24-year-old superstar gymnast struggled with the pressure she felt on sports’ biggest stage and battled a case of the twisties — a dangerous phenomenon that causes disorientation midair. So she pulled out of the women’s gymnastics team final following a wayward vault.

Simone Biles.

Biles at the Tokyo Olympics.

AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

After she returned home from Tokyo, Biles had a candid conversation with her mother, Nellie Biles, for a video shared Monday on Athleta’s community platform, AthletaWell. During the interview, the seven-time Olympic medalist explained the calculus behind her withdrawal in Tokyo and the emotions that colored the decision.

“I didn’t want to potentially lose a medal spot for them, because the girls were more than prepared to go in and to do their job, which they did,” Simone said.

Nellie inquired about the lead-up to Simone’s decision to pull out, which the star said was informed by her headspace before she even arrived at the games. 

“I wouldn’t even say it started in Tokyo — I feel like it was probably a little deeper rooted than that,” Simone said. “I think it was just the stress factor built up over time. It just — my body and my mind just said no, but even I didn’t know I was going through it until it just happened.”

Simone Biles at Tokyo 2020.

Simone Biles.

Gregory Bull/AP

A more lighthearted moment in the conversation came when Simone attempted to describe the feeling of the twisties to Nellie — who is Simone’s adoptive mother and is married to her biological grandfather.

Simone told Nellie: “If I flipped you while spinning, you would not know where you are.”

“Correct,” Nellie replied.

“That’s how I felt,” Simone said.

Simone Biles vaults at the Tokyo Olympics.

Biles struggles with the twisties during a vault at the Tokyo Olympics.

AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

Though Biles received widespread praise for her vulnerability and strength in navigating a difficult mental health situation under the bright lights, she admitted to her mom that “it just sucks” to “train five years and it doesn’t go the way you wanted.” 

“But I know that I helped a lot of people and athletes speak out about mental health and saying no, because I knew I couldn’t go out there and compete,” she added. “I knew I was gonna get hurt.”

After Biles bowed out of the team all-around final — and then decided to withdraw from four other medal events as well — she took time to speak with her coaches and “have conversations with Team USA’s sports psychologists,” she noted in the AthletaWell video.

Simone Biles.

Biles smiles after her balance beam routine at the Tokyo Olympics.

JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images

Although she was disappointed that she couldn’t safely compete in most of the events she’d prepared for this year, Biles said she felt relieved when she didn’t get the “backlash and embarrassment” she expected. In fact, she told her mom, it wound up being “the complete opposite.”

“That’s the first time I felt, like, human,” she said. “Besides Simone Biles, I was Simone, and people respected that.”

Check out Simone and Nellie’s full conversation via AthletaWell below:


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