Simone Biles is stepping into the Olympic spotlight again. She is better prepared for the pressure


SPRING, Texas — SPRING, Texas (AP) — Simone Biles is not “cured.” Let’s start there.

A cure implies finality. An ultimate and decisive victory.

If the gymnastics superstar has learned anything in the three years since those strange, uncertain days in Tokyo when she put her mental health and personal safety ahead of her pursuit of more Olympic glory, it is that the battle to protect yourself is never really over. Never fully won.

It’s a lesson she learned in front of the entire world in Japan, where Biles arrived as the face of the Summer Games only to withdraw from multiple competitions, including the team final, when her body simply stopped doing what her brain was asking it to.

In the moment, Biles blamed it on “ the twisties.” On the surface, she was right. Yet they sprang from something deeper and harder to define.

“She can’t even explain it (and) the doctors she sees probably can’t even explain it to her,” said Laurent Landi, who along with his wife Cecile has coached Biles since 2017. “It’s a trauma that happened to her and that came at a bad time and she could not handle it. It’s as simple as this. She could not function. She could not be a gymnast at that time.”

She can now, though the road to this moment — Biles will compete for the first time in 2024 at this weekend’s U.S. Classic — has been difficult. It has required a new mindset, at times a literal mother’s touch and constant vigilance to work on herself, work she now understands has no expiration date.

Biles tried to take all the outsized attention before Tokyo in stride. She projected a sense of normalcy. It was a facade. At some point, the pent-up emotions and aggressions she felt caused her to “ crack.”

Biles was in therapy before Tokyo but had paused treatment before heading overseas. With millions watching, she walked off the floor at the Ariake Gymnastics Center after one wayward vault in the women’s team final and called her family, who had remained home in Texas because of COVID-19 restrictions put in place for the games.

Nellie Biles picked up the phone and heard her daughter on the other end saying over and over through tears “Mom, I really cannot do this. I’m lost, I cannot do this.”

And so she didn’t. Biles pulled out of a handful of finals before returning to earn a bronze on the balance beam, a medal the most decorated gymnast in the history of the sport has called one of the most important of her career. As painful and frightening as the experience was, it needed to happen because it made Biles realize mental health isn’t something she could ignore.

“I couldn’t run away from it, you know,” Biles told The Associated Press. “I just owned it and said ‘Hey, this is what I’m going through. This is the help that I’m going to get.'”

Help that has propelled Biles back to a familiar spot: atop her sport with another Olympics in the offing. Help that presents itself in different ways and sometimes comes from unexpected places.

Biles firmly believes she’s in a better place this time around, thanks in part to weekly Thursday meetings with her therapist that have become an intractable part of her schedule.

Last fall in Antwerp, Belgium, Biles walked into a nearly empty arena during podium training before the world championships, her first team competition since Tokyo. Something about the scene evoked, as Nellie Biles puts it, “a PTSD moment.” Biles ran off the floor to gather herself following a trigger she never saw coming.

There were more tears. More anxiety. More calls. More reassurance.

“She almost didn’t go back out there,” Nellie Biles said.

After being “a little bit hesitant,” Biles pushed through thanks in part to the decision to have a meeting with her therapist, something she rarely did close to competitions before beginning the practice ahead of the U.S. Classic in Chicago last summer.

The U.S. women were given the afternoon off and some of them headed off to a chocolate factory. Biles chose to stay behind to FaceTime her therapist instead.

“I know how important it is for me to stay present, mindful and not be too anxious,” she said. “So yes, we will keep that up.”

There were other comforts of home in Belgium. Namely, her family.

Every day, Nellie Biles made her way to Simone’s hotel room and spent 30-45 minutes braiding her daughter’s hair, a first.

“My daughter is (27) and I know (she) can braid her own hair,” Nellie Biles said. “But it’s just that touch, that togetherness. It’s that bonding. It’s what she needed and it worked.”

The meet ended the way so many have during Biles’ decade-long run at the top: with a fistful of medals stashed in her luggage for the return flight home and the stage set for a potentially historic Olympic year.

Before Rio de Janeiro in 2016, before Tokyo in 2021, the prospect of Olympic history threatened to — and at times did — consume her.

It doesn’t anymore. Life has blessedly, mercifully, gotten in the way.

Biles married current Chicago Bears safety Jonathan Owens a year ago. The two are building a house in the Houston suburbs that will be finished (hopefully) in late summer or early fall.

In a way, she is like so many other 20-something newlyweds in Biles’ orbit. Former Olympic teammate MyKayla Skinner, for example, welcomed a daughter last fall. There is part of Biles that feels like “that’s what I should be doing.”

Instead, she’s “still flipping out here,” still finding her way to World Champions Centre — the spaceship of a gym the Biles family runs — and training alongside other Olympic hopefuls, many of whom are nearly a decade younger and grew up idolizing her.

Why is she still putting herself through this? Well, that’s the biggest question of them all.

“I think everything I’ve been through, I want to push the limits,” she said. “I want to see how far I can go. I want to see what I’m still capable of so once I step away from this sport, I can truly be happy with my career and say I gave it my all.”

She is well aware of what may await this summer. That the millions who were riveted by what happened in Tokyo — from the throngs who supported her to the critics on social media who branded her a quitter or worse — will tune in to see if she cracks again.

Those closest to Biles believe she is better prepared to handle whatever may come.

“She knows something like (Tokyo) can happen because it did happen,” Landi said. “So it’s just like, ‘OK, I’m going to be careful, I’m going to follow the same protocol every time and then I’m going to avoid (the pitfalls)’ and that’s all you can do.”

Is this the last time? She won’t say. That’s too far ahead. She doesn’t pepper her conversations with the words “Paris” or “Olympics.” It may seem intentional. It’s not. It’s just what she does.

“It’s not like I think that ‘Olympics’ is a plague and I’m trying to avoid it or trying not to say it,” she said. “I just think there are other things I have to get to before that.”

The U.S. Classic this weekend in Connecticut will include 2020 Olympic champion Sunisa Lee and 2012 Olympic champion Gabby Douglas. The U.S. Championships are later this month. The Olympic Trials loom in late June.

One turn, one routine, one rotation, one meet at a time. With all the tools — including her therapist — at the ready.

“I feel very confident with where I’m at mentally and physically, that (Tokyo) is not going to happen again just because we have put in the work,” she said.

There is something larger at stake here, too, a message Biles is sending to others. It’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK to make yourself vulnerable, to be open and transparent about the process no matter how messy it may get.

She says she has long lost count of the number of people who have told her “because of you, I’m getting the proper help that I deserve.”

It can be jarring in a way. She never set out to become a face of this movement. It happened anyway.

If Biles retreats in Tokyo instead of confronting her issues head-on, maybe those people don’t find the courage to ask for something they urgently need. That’s the blessing of the last Olympics that far outweighs a medal.

“As unfortunate as it (was) … it’s exciting because I know that by speaking out it’s helping other people,” Biles said. “And that’s what I’ve always wanted to do, inside this sport and outside this sport.”

So on Saturday she will salute the judges and thrust herself into the spotlight once more.

No, she is not cured. She is better, though, even as she remains a work in progress like so many others out there who found the courage to say “me too” after seeing the biggest star in the U.S. Olympic movement open up about her struggles with so much at stake.

That’s the true lesson of Tokyo. As challenging as it was in the moment, it was necessary.

“It’s good that it happened,” Biles said. “Because I don’t think I would have got the proper help that I need (without it).”

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AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games



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