Can college save the gymnastics star?
TOKYO - Simone Biles said she wouldn't do anything differently. She was fine until she was unwell. She was in control of everything until everything was in control of her. Your struggle with the so-called "twisties" can come at any time and for any reason.
"People said it was stressful, but I honestly couldn't tell you," said Biles.
Nobody can tell. That's the problem. And that's why it's not easy to find out how to avoid something like this in the future - the best and strongest gymnast in the world only completes two of her expected 12 performances here.
There is a reason, however, that what Biles tried to do - dominate two Olympics - is unknown in the sport. Since 1980, when the sport was very different, no all-round gold or even silver medalist has returned to repeat the event.
And while a diagnosis is impossible, it's fair to say that Biles looked exhausted, burned out, and insecure here, even from less than ideal training and qualifying sessions. And it is still fair to at least wonder if a decade of effort in junior and then senior international training and competition - a relentless pursuit of improvement - has simply drained them.
Because of this, athletes are encouraged that the next generation of Americans don't seem to be trying Biles' way to stay in the cutthroat world of international gymnastics.
With the NCAA finally allowing athletes to capitalize on their name, image, and likeness, the sport's young stars no longer have to choose between millions of referrals and college eligibility.
It's opened a floodgate: Sunisa Lee (Auburn), Jordan Chiles (UCLA), Jade Carey (Oregon State), and Grace McCallum (Utah) all opt for the less intense, rounded life of a college gymnast who wasn't Galle to disposal.
"I honestly think it will make me a lot happier just playing for one team," said Lee, the Olympic gold medalist who says she wants to compete in the Paris 2024 Games. “Not individually like that, [which] is scary. I want to have fun in college. Elite gymnastics was just so mentally draining and exhausting. "
Can college save the gymnastics star?
Simone Biles of the United States prepares to perform on the balance beam during the women's artistic gymnastics apparatus finals at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Tuesday, August 3, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo / Natacha Pisarenko)
College not an option for Simone Biles
In August 2014, Valorie Kondos Field, or "Miss Val" as the legendary former UCLA gymnast is known throughout the sport, received a call from a then 17-year-old high school kid in Houston.
"Simone Biles" was the caller ID.
Biles was the reigning, dominant all-round world champion and thus the most sought-after recruit in college gymnastics ... ever. And she had good news for Miss Val.
"I want to sign with UCLA."
Kondos Field excitedly announced to her husband: “'We just got the' G.O.A.T '.
Not that Kondos Field ever expected to ever train her. Within a year, Biles would turn pro taking advantage of millions of advertising and business opportunities while continuing to focus on the international elite gymnastics.
"We knew she was going to turn pro," said Field. "There was no way. There was just no way she wouldn't ...
“That would have been great,” she says with a laugh.
The story was a crowd-pleaser for Kondos Field as she retold it over the years - how the greatest recruit of all time escaped.
Of course, nobody felt too bad for her. Kondos Field won seven NCAA titles at UCLA before retiring in 2019.
However, after the past two weeks, you may be wondering if it wasn't just Kondos Field and UCLA who lost when Simone Biles turned pro.
Maybe Biles did too.
Embed Team USA Gymnastics Over the Years slide show
College gymnastics is a subtly different sport from elite international gymnastics. First of all, it's mostly team-oriented, not a solitary pursuit of improvement and perfection. Second, the assessment rewards the quality of execution, not the difficulty of the routine, which removes the pressure to add extra moves with tedious work.
"I see gymnastics in college as a respite," said Kondos Field.
Lee says she will be enrolled at Auburn in two weeks and looks forward to getting away from the Olympic intensity of living in a dorm and experiencing life a little. She does not renounce anything. Her college trainer Jeff Graba is the twin brother of her single coach. The goal is two-pronged preparation - enjoy university sports while maintaining enough elite skills to get back on track if necessary.
Gymnasts don't have long careers, and while this is often physical, it can also be mental and emotional. This is not a football or basketball that you can compete in your 30s or even 40s. There is no understatement of workload and sacrifice.
It all builds on just four or five meetings a year, with a single week culminating every fourth rotation of the calendar. Top Americans exercise seven or eight hours a day, which requires them to be homeschooled as preteens. The exercises are physically demanding, including nearly impossible body weights and fitness levels to maintain. In the case of Biles, she was a victim of USA Gymnastics and doctor Larry Nassar for part of her career.
And the competition doesn't take any days off.
"We were basically in a closed training camp for a year and a half," said Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova, who won one gold and two bronze medals here, about her team's preparation for the Olympic Games. "[We were] working very hard without seeing our families or leading normal lives."
Was it worth it?
"Of course," said Melnikova. "It was the best because we focused on the practice."
They always said that about the Karolyi camp, and it only lasted a week or a month.
That's what it means to compete at this level. Can someone take care of that?
College gymnastics is more about the team and less about the pursuit of individual glory. (Allison Zaucha for the Washington Post via Getty Images)
"It's about joy"
MyKayla Skinner couldn't. After years of work, she was a deputy on the 2016 Olympic team. She said she was exhausted and thought her elite career was over. However, she decided to do her education and compete at the University of Utah.
"I started to hate gymnastics to me," Skinner said. “We had [the demanding former national team coordinator] Marta Karolyi, so times were very, very different. So college definitely helped me regain that love of sport. "
Next she was back.
"That pushed me to make this comeback," said Skinner, 24, after winning a silver medal in the jump. "'I was so close last time, I want to go back." And here I am. "
Kondos Field has no idea what would have happened if Biles had gone to UCLA from 2016 to 2019, except "she would have won a lot of national championships". However, the time spent on basics, fun, and flair of the performance could have helped.
It couldn't have been much worse in competition. Biles went here with bronze on the beam and silver in a team competition from which she had to retire after jumping.
"Unlike the Karolyis, you can do it and still win," said Kondos Field. “Yes [the US] won , but there is another way, a better way. I don't think the word fun is [college gymnastics word]. I think it's about finding joy in sport. The naysayers say it's about fun, but no, no, it's not about fun. It's about joy. Joy comes from pride in doing a job well. "
Last but not least, Kondos Field is happy that Lee is focusing on Auburn rather than locking himself in a gym to add another technical element to every rotation ahead of the World Cup next year.
"I think Suni Lee will be great even if she is only half the difficulty," said Kondos Field.
Can college provide the break while building a bridge to future games? We'll see, but if Simone Biles, the great Simone Biles, couldn't get the old way up and running, then a new way might be long overdue.
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In this article:
Valorie Kondos field
American gymnastics coach
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