The twisties are a mysterious phenomenon, where suddenly a gymnast is no longer able to do a twisting skill she’s done thousands of times before.
Your body just won’t cooperate, your brain loses track of where you are in the air. You find out where the ground is when you slam into it.
This is what Simone Biles said she experienced in morning practice.
When Biles scratched most of the Olympic team final, she said it was not because of a physical injury, but her mental health. This doesn’t mean she felt sad, or didn’t have her heart in it to compete. It means that her psychological state put her at significant physical risk. If her brain wouldn’t play along with what her body knows how to do, she could be seriously injured.
Flipping and twisting at the same time can be extremely disorienting, you can’t just watch where you are with your eyes. You have to feel it. This is proprioception, a sense of where your body is in space and what it’s doing.
In gymnastics, this is called “air sense.” And Biles is famous for how good hers is.
“She’s always had incredible air sense, which is what you need in this sport,” her former coach Aimee Boorman told Houstonia magazine in 2015. “She doesn’t crash very frequently. Other kids, you’ll just see them splat, or get lost in the air. That doesn’t happen with her.”
Her natural talent is why her missed vault is so stunning. But her decision to scratch makes a lot of sense. When the twisties set in, it’s hard to know when they’ll go away. But Biles’ decision to protect herself marks a shift from the old way gymnastics worked in the US.
“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human, too,” she said. “So, we have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”