As she twisted during her floor routine on July 30, gymnast Simone Biles became lost in the air — “If you look at the pictures and my eyes, you can see how confused I am as to where I am in the air,” she said to her Instagram followers. In the gymnastics world, this phenomenon is called the “twisties,” and prevents gymnasts from performing moves that they’ve done for years.
Gymnast and freshman Sylvia Kutach describes the “twisties” that Biles faced during the Olympics as “[getting] lost while doing a flip” and losing the sense of direction and muscle memory that gymnastics is heavily dependent on, especially while performing complex twists. Because it increases the risk of landing on their neck, the physical effects of the twisties can be life-threatening — Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina died from complications from quadriplegia that occurred when she was pressured to compete a complex Thomas Salto move that has been since banned.
“It's really dangerous because you can land on your head, but really what it is is just thinking,” Kutach said. “We've always grown up to just grow our skills, and when you start to think, you fail. And when you fail, you can get hurt.”
Biles said she didn’t feel as though she was competing for herself — a statement that senior and Level 9 Gymnast Kelly Hui relates to as she approaches the highest level (10) before elite levels. In Level 7, Hui had a winning streak, and because of it, she faced pressure to win every competition and “please everybody.” She found her only motivation to compete her best was pursuing medals, which she says “took the fun out of competing.” Hui noticed a physical manifestation of these worries as she fell more in her routines because she “wouldn’t go for things as hard.”
These mental barriers that Biles openly discussed can have lasting effects on a gymnast’s mindset towards taking risks, according to Kutach. However, Biles made a relatively quick recovery and overcame that mental block to earn a bronze medal in the balance beam individual event on Aug. 7, 2021.
“Obviously, if you're having mental health issues, you prioritize that over what other people think,” Hui said. “It's kind of toxic that [others] are proving [Biles’] point by saying like, “you're doing it wrong, and you're not being a good team player,” because [when] she dropped out, I think she said she felt like she was competing for everyone else and she wasn't competing for herself. All of these comments are proving her point, so I think it's good that she stepped out.”
Gymnast Sunisa Lee stood in the spotlight at the Tokyo Olympics for winning the gold medal in the women's individual all-around gymnastics competition. Apart from the glory of delivering a victory for the United States, Suni Lee also became known for becoming the first Asian American to win a gold medal in the Olympics all-around competition. Hui believes that Lee was able to increase the reputation of Asian Americans in the Olympic gymnastic field.
“[Suni Lee] was the first Hmong gymnast to represent the U.S., so I think that has an important meaning,” Hui said. “It'll be inspiring for many younger gymnasts because they will look up to Suni Lee and imagine themselves winning a gold medal as well.”
Hui believes that Lee’s gold medal will inspire more Asian Americans to consider the path towards becoming a gymnast and ultimately raise the representation of Asian Americans in the field of gymnastics.
“So far, Morgan Hurd won the world championships and Suni Lee was the first Asian gymnast to represent the USA,” Hui said. “I do know it is difficult to be qualified to go to the Olympics, but except for Hurd and Lee, it is [also] difficult to [find] Asian representation in major gymnastic events.”
From traveling two hours to the one Olympic-sized pool in Alaska to resorting to practicing in a pool half the size of the Olympic pools, 17-year-old swimmer Lydia Jacoby balanced Olympic training, attending high school and playing in her school’s Snow River String Band.
Although Lynbrook High School sophomore Myles Kim doesn’t compete at an Olympic level, he also describes having to find balance between his academic and athletic responsibilities while swimming at De Anza Cupertino Aquatics (DACA) since sixth grade.
“I just have to really plan out everything every day and make sure that I reserve certain times for swimming,” Kim said. “And make sure that I can get work done in a reasonable amount of time [and] get enough sleep.”
Kim says that athletic events like the Olympics are where work ethic shines, and believes that Jacoby’s victory is representative of her hard work, especially considering her limited access to an Olympic sized pool.
He also predicts that Jacoby’s Olympic win will positively influence her personal life, as she will receive media attention that may lead to sponsorships, eventually furthering her swim career. Being a similar age as Jacoby, Kim views Jacoby’s gold medal achievement as an inspiration and believes it will inspire others to strive for their goals.
“It's very interesting how [Jacoby] was able to get so far,” Kim said. “[The Olympics] are really an example of meritocracy where your work actually counts towards [your goals]. You don't really see that often in our regular society –– it's something that you can only see in the Olympics and other athletic programs where your hard work actually counts, and you can really get it paid off.”