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Local gymnasts react to Simone Biles’ decision to opt out of Olympic events

Maddy Murphy, 16, performs a challenging move on the balance beam Thursday  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane gymnasts are coming out in support of USA Gymnast Simone Biles after she flooded worldwide headlines with her decision to sit out both the team and individual all-around gymnastics competition in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, choosing to focus on her mental health.

Without Biles’ participation in the team events, America took silver in the team final while the Russian Olympic Committee took the top podium spot. The culprit wasn’t a physical energy, but a mental stifle known in gymnastics as the “twisties.”

It’s a name for a disconnect between the brain and body that can make gymnasts lose orientation. Biles’ ability to perform is rooted in a mental reassurance. Awareness is key to executing complex moves and knowing the air time necessary to complete those moves before landing, local gymnasts say.

“When you’re doing your flips and twist, you’ve gotta know where you are in the air and space wise,” said Melanie Bixby, a coach at Dynamic Gymnastics in Spokane. “She’s lost that ability, and if you’re getting lost in the middle of a flip or twist, it’s not going to be some little injury, it’s going to be catastrophic.”

Biles received mass praise in her decision to sit out. Her former Olympic teammate Aly Raisman offered support on the “TODAY” show while the USA Gymnastics team showed theirs in a statement.

“We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being,” USA Gymnastics said in a news release. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”

After her early exit, Biles cheered on her U.S. teammates, including Suni Lee, who led all competitors Thursday with a 57.433 overall to won her first gold medal.

The Hmong American extended the United States’ winning streak for the fifth Olympics games in a row as the women’s gymnastics all-around champion – a dynasty Biles contributed to at the last games in 2016.

In an interview with “TODAY,” Lee’s father, John Lee, said he was proud of his daughter and expressed gratitude for Biles ’ support.

“I want to tell Simone that she truly is the gold, because she let my baby girl bring me a gold medal,” he said.

Biles is “gold,” too, for many gymnasts at Spokane’s Dynamic Gymnastics Academy.

Her decision to choose herself emphasizes vulnerability, a positive gymnastics environment and importance of trusting teammates, core values of the academy that trains children from 16 months to 18 years old.

“I think it’s nice how she uses her platform for herself but to make a statement about mental health,” said Aili Hatcher, 12, who had a tibial injury that required surgery and is out for two to four months. “What’s nice is, if you need the support like Simone got, you can get it, and that’s the environment here.”

Longtime gymnastic members, such as Bixby, remember being 18, fresh into coaching, watching Kerri Strug complete her vault on a severely injured ankle in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

The push to perform resulted in Strug’s retirement at the age of 18. Strug’s bodily sacrifice for the gold medal helped fuel a toxic gymnastics culture that put passion and talent behind an intense pressure to compete, no matter what.

“It created this culture of ‘If Kerri can do this on a broken ankle, you can do this on a sore back or some fracture in your tibia,’ ” Bixby said. “It’s not until now where Simone is able to speak up at the Olympic level. Simone is coming in and saying ‘I can’t trust myself to do it.’ And I think that’s huge.”

Most gymnasts experience the twisties in their careers since muscle memory has the ability to forget things as quickly as the mind remembers, especially in times of stress. Each level of gymnastic style represents an advanced level of craft and tricks, but the basics are still necessary to pull off the most complex things. Dynamic Gymnastics gymnast Charlize Hall, 12, is training from a Level 8 to 9 .

“If you don’t have your basics, you can get really injured, and it won’t end well,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s hard to hold on to the basics when you’re learning bigger and harder skills.”

For Biles, on the biggest stage of her sport and her life, there is no time or safe haven to relearn. The Olympics don’t have a plush training facility in Tokyo.

There is no 40-by-20, 6-foot pit filled with multicolored memory foam cubes to catch her. There is no thick mat to fluff a tough landing. There is no month gap to train through the twisties for another big stage. The Olympics is that big stage, and other athletes say Biles’ choice encourages gymnasts to create a positive relationship with their ability to choose themselves.

“Her opting out to focus on her mental health helps me relate,” said Megan Morrow, a 15-year-old gymnast on Level 9 . “Her saying ‘I am lost in this moment and I am not comfortable,’ it makes me relate to her a lot more and emphasizes how much more I look up to her.”

Biles’ decision to opt out creates a ripple in gymnastics culture, helping it shift in the best way possible. Though she may not have asked to be a role model, Biles is a representation of how athletes can impact the world by making choices beyond their sport, their generation and themselves.

Bixby said the choice helps her girls “know their mental health is the most important thing coaches care about more than anything.”

“I hope that it has a tremendous impact,” Bixby said, “that everyone can use their voice no matter what.”