Tokyo 2020: MyKayla Skinner finds success in Simone Biles’ absence from gymnastics final

Even without competing Biles has helped those around her and raised the profile of gymnastics

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Sunday 01 August 2021 17:46
Team USA enter Olympic stadium during Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony

Since Simone Biles pulled out of the gymnastics team event on Tuesday citing the “Twisties”, the word has only just fallen off Twitter’s trending list. It has been entered into search engines more times over these last five days than during any similar period since the start of 2004. Google Analytics does not go back any further, but we can probably assume it has been such a global talking point.

Former gymnasts have come forward with their tales of the Twisties. Some have posted videos of their battles with the Twisties in training or competition. Even Biles, through a series of Instagram stories, shared footage of herself in a Tokyo gym trying to rid herself of the Twisties. She followed that up with a Q&A where she was asked for more detail on what it feels like.

“Literally can not tell up from down. It’s the craziest feeling ever. Not having an inch of control over your body,” she said.

“What’s even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air I also have NO idea how I’m going to land. Or what I’m going to land on. Head/hands/feet/ back…”

It has been an incredibly informative few days for the casual. Gymnastics is the most Olympics of the Olympic sport: passing people by for a few years before – boom – they’re all in for a couple of weeks in the summer. Each session a crash course in the disciplines and code of points. By the time we’re up to speed, it’s all over, until the next Games comes around and the cycle begins all over again.

But we’ll never forget the Twisties. That will be forever stored away in the memory banks. A golden nugget of information affixed to the most recognisable athlete at the most peculiar Games.

There is just one problem. You’re not supposed to talk about the “Twisties”. Especially not around active gymnasts. It is a very real sporting jinx, the other end of the spectrum to, say, telling a pitcher he is close to throwing a perfect game. The mere mention of the phenomena or act speaks it into or out of existence - whichever is worse.

“Twisties” has become a subject unto itself ever since Biles revealed she was suffering from it when she went off the vault earlier this week. And on Sunday night in the vault final, with Biles in the stands rather than on the gym floor, the Twisties created an unsettling atmosphere in the Ariake Gymnastics Centre. One where it felt like we were waiting for something to go terribly wrong because of something we had no idea about this time last week.

It is a fine example of how a little amount of information can be a bad thing. Now, it’s all we can see, like ghosts during our childhood when we are at our most scared.

The rudimentary logic must be that if greatest gymnast of all time could be affected so badly to pull herself out of five out of six gold medal events so far - and the smart money is news of a full set of withdrawals by Monday - how could the others block out its ubiquitous mentions and not succumb? Especially on the vault, the Twistiest apparatus of them all.

Biles was her encouraging best in the stands, bellowing our typical American cheer like an upbeat exorcist. And yet for all the confidence she breathed into others, it was hard not to regard her (unfairly) as the spectre of this meet.

For Biles’ teammates in action, the last few days have been especially challenging. Just as Biles speaks of the weight of the world on her shoulders, so her teammates see her as the one who has taken on the most responsibility to their cause and deliver accordingly. Now the focus is on how they redistribute her excessive share.

Sunisa Lee took the mantle on the all-around with gold. The responsibility for the vault, Biles’ best suit, fell to MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey. Both were noticeably anxious.

The nerves were worn more visibly by Carey. Her first attempt was tentative, run-up watchful, especially up to the table. Her landing drew the same gasps Biles had done days ago with a familiar walk back: an unconcealable frown across her face flanked by a concerned coach by her side. A score of 11.933, nowhere near enough to trouble the top five, was given. A deeper breath and a second attempt registered higher but averaged out at 12.416 - the lowest by two full points.

Skinner, though, excelled. And it was all the more remarkable that she did so as the first to charge down that haunted lane.

Her path to this moment has been very different, and fraught with uncertainty that is not reflected in her talent. At 24, she had just about come to terms with the fact she wouldn’t see any action in Tokyo. She was due to board a plane home to the United States, reprising her Rio2016 role as an inactive alternate.

Late in the evening, though, she had a silver medal around her neck for her efforts. Efforts that would not have come without Biles’ stepping aside and then flexing her muscles to tell USA Gymnastics that Skinner had to stick around.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh I am going to be competing again,’” Skinner said when she was rushed back from the brink. “To be able to change my mindset has been a little bit difficult.” But change she did.

Alongside her was Rebecca Andrade, a 22-year-old who, typically for a gymnast, has already been through a lot. There have been three anterior cruciate ligament tears, failing to qualify for the 2020 iteration of these Games and then getting a pandemic do-over for 2021. With careful yet expansive abandon, she became Brazil’s first female Olympic champion in Gymnastics thanks to a pair of fizzing combinations of attack, spring, leaps and, of course, landings, averaging her out at 15.083.

To look at Andrade and Skinner alongside bronze medalist Yeo Seojeong of Korea on the podium was to see success. Not relief to have got through in one piece, or satisfaction they conquered the treacherous vault. And, of course, those damn Twisties.

This, simply, is the lot of a gymnast. Acknowledging the sport’s mental and physical tax while having to ignore it to excel.

Here before us in Tokyo, not just on the podium and not just on Sunday, have been reminders of just how impressive they are. At a time when their weaknesses have been openly discussed and clearly explained, gymnasts have never seemed stronger.

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