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The Individual All-Around Women's Gymnastics Final Will Go On Without Biles

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

At the Tokyo Olympics, an American has won the gold medal in individual all-around women's gymnastics. Suni Lee prevailed despite a shock for the U.S. team, as Simone Biles withdrew the other day. Biles said she faced mental health challenges and spoke of a phenomenon known as the twisties. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: In her one and, perhaps, only finals performance of these Olympic Games, Simone Biles launched herself into a vault that, once airborne, would require 2 1/2 twists of her body. As she recounted afterwards, it didn't work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMONE BILES: So I was trying a 2 1/2. And I ended up doing a 1 1/2, just got a little bit lost in the air.

GOLDMAN: An ocean away in California, a former competitive gymnast, Catherine Burns, watched and winced.

CATHERINE BURNS: I know that feeling so deeply in my body of being like, I'm lost. I came out. And I need to be able to complete the trick without injuring myself.

GOLDMAN: Burns competed through high school in gymnastics and diving. She was nowhere near the elite world where Biles lives. But anyone who's honed their airborne skills in sport can experience that frightening sensation of suddenly being lost in air. It's called the twisties. You can get it on twisting moves, Burns says, and easy ones, too.

BURNS: You can get lost in the air on a really simple trick that you've done a thousand times before.

GOLDMAN: Burns likens it to other things we do over and over, their execution locked in muscle memory, like walking down a flight of stairs.

BURNS: But if you think too hard about, like, picking your feet up at the right rate going down the stairs and you start to get overwhelmed and you're going to trip over yourself, that's sort of the feeling of, like, thinking too hard or being too aware of something that you shouldn't really have to think about anymore.

GOLDMAN: After Biles withdrew from the team final this week, she acknowledged to reporters, quote, "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. It actively makes you feel like you're not the caliber of athlete that you are, she said. Stress can be a trigger, and Biles has talked about having the weight of the world on her shoulders when she went into these games as the preeminent star, someone so dominant that everyone else would be competing for second.

In the aftermath of Biles' ordeal in Tokyo, Catherine Burns posted a long Twitter thread describing the twisties. It got the predictable trolls calling Biles a quitter and soft. Burns heads an educational nonprofit that teaches girls to, in her words, exercise the power of their voice. She says Biles withdrawing from the world's biggest event is an example of that power. And it's especially significant, she says, after Biles and so many other gymnasts were sexually victimized by the infamous former team doctor, Larry Nassar.

BURNS: I really see her as making a statement to other young girls, especially other young gymnasts, who have experienced, sometimes, these levels of abuse from their coaches and U.S.A. gymnastics, where they can say, no, this isn't - this doesn't feel right to me. I know what I need. I know how to advocate for myself. And I want to stand up and represent myself in a way that would make me proud.

GOLDMAN: Many agree. Biles tweeted today, quote, "the outpouring of love and support I've received has made me realize I'm more than my accomplishments and gymnastics, which I never truly believed before." Will that realization be enough to counteract the twisties and free her up to compete at these games? Many hope so. But it appears the world will be OK if it doesn't.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF FATB AND ZENDR'S "LOST THOUGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.