About Simone Biles

I will (probably) be posting more about the trade deadline later—there have been several trades since yesterday afternoon. However, I wanted to take a break and talk about someone who’s been ubiquitous in the sports news this week: Olympic gymnast Simone Biles.

As you probably know, she withdrew from the women’s team competition after a bad vault and then also did not compete in the individual all around event, which was then won by her teammate Suni Lee. Without Biles, the American women won the silver medal in the team meet. It remains to be seen if she’ll be able to perform in the individual apparatus events.

She talked about her mental status, attributing her sudden inability to perform to “the twisties.” Most folks have supported her, but not all. Some have stated she should have “soldiered through it.” First, let me acknowledge that a good-to-go Simone Biles no doubt lifts the US to the gold in the team event and likely means two US medals in the individual all around. However, with the twisties, she wasn’t good to go. An athlete performing poorly hurts their team, so her decision was the right one even if we stop there.

This is a topic we baseball fans should be familiar with. We don’t call it the twisties though. Some of us remember Steve Blass, former star pitcher for the Pirates who suddenly couldn’t find the plate, causing a fairly abrupt end to his career in 1975. “Steve Blass Disease” as it came to be called is also known in baseball circles as the yips. I expect most of us remember Rick Ankiel’s suddenly pitching balls over the backstop.

Biles posted a video of herself trying to dismount from the uneven bars in a practice gym—and landing flat on her back. That brings up a significant difference between baseball yips and gymnastics twisties: throwing a ball into a screen is one thing, but a gymnast who can’t perform is courting injury by trying.

Baseball fans should also gently let gymnastics fans know that the yips/twisties often doesn’t just go away. Blass never regained his form. Ankiel made an eventual big league comeback with the Cardinals…but as an outfielder and not as a pitcher. I’d love for Biles to have just needed a few days off and see her out there Sunday/Monday/Tuesday dazzling us as she has before, but I’m not holding my breath.

If we have seen her in competition for the last time, she should still be remembered as one of the best ever gymnasts. Few athletes really get to leave on their own terms, so a mental health issue should not be looked at any differently than an ankle injury. She will also still be a beautiful, intelligent, talented young woman with hopefully many, many happy healthy years ahead of her and success in whatever else she pursues.

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