After documenting training practices – now viewed as abusive – of elite gymnastics in her 1995 book, “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” sports journalist and author Joan Ryan found herself unable to watch the sport.
“Once you know what’s going on, you can’t unknow it,” Ryan told CNN Sport. “So you can’t ignore it.”
But nearly 30 years later and with the 2024 Olympics on the horizon, Ryan is “all in after not wanting to watch gymnastics for a long, long time.” Simone Biles, at least in part, is the reason why.
Two years ago, Biles surprised fans around the world when she withdrew from five event finals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She ultimately returned to earn bronze on the balance beam — her 32nd medal between the Olympics and World Championships. Then she disappeared from competitive gymnastics.
Now, the seven-time Olympic medalist is back, scheduled to compete at the US Classic in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, on Saturday. This time, the 26-year-old Biles appears as not only the most decorated gymnast in US history, but also a role model in efforts to draw attention to athlete mental health.
“We’ve never seen an athlete like Simone Biles,” Ryan said. “For her to step away because of gymnastics, because of what she went through, because of the culture in her sport, it highlights what this sport is all about.”
“Here’s this incredible woman who just seemed like she could do anything — a superhero. And yet that sport was corrosive enough and abusive enough that she really had to step away for her own mental health,” added Ryan.
Biles opted out of the team final in Tokyo while suffering from the “twisties,” a mental block that causes gymnasts to lose track of their position while midair. USA Gymnastics later announced that she had withdrawn from the individual all-around final, citing a need to prioritize her mental health, as well as the vault, floor and uneven bars finals.
“Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out,” Biles told reporters at the time. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being.”
Biles was replaced in the all-around final by Jade Carey, who had finished ninth in the qualifying round. Carey, now a rising junior at Oregon State University, looked to Biles’s decision with admiration.
“When Simone withdrew from the team final at the Olympics, I saw pure strength,” Carey told CNN Sport in an email. “It’s hard to take a step back and truly take care of yourself in our sport and that is what she showed the world.”
Biles returned to earn bronze on the balance beam — her 32nd medal between the Olympics and World Championships. Her 19 World Championships gold medals is the most by any gymnast in history.
For fans accustomed to seeing Biles dominate competitions with ease, her departure in 2021 was an unexpected move. She had dazzled crowds at the 2016 Rio Olympics, earning five medals, including four golds. Many expected her to do the same — or even better — in Tokyo.
But for some more familiar with the intense physical and psychological demands of the sport, Biles’ decision to opt out of competition was more unprecedented than it was surprising.
“(Biles’ departure) was shocking in that nobody else had ever in gymnastics stood up and said ‘Enough. Right now, this is enough, and I need to take care of myself no matter what everybody wants from me on the biggest stage on the planet,’” Ryan said.
Ryan’s book criticized USA Gymnastics – previously known as US Gymnastics Federation – for turning a blind eye to abusive training throughout the 1980s and 1990s and prioritizing success over health, while ignoring devastating consequences: eating disorders, depression and other mental health challenges, as well as debilitating and sometimes fatal injuries.
“I just stood back, and I was like, ‘Good for you girl,’” Ryan said of Biles’ withdrawal. “This is exactly what you should be doing, taking care of yourself and not just doing what everybody wants you to do.”
Biles faced backlash for her decision on social media, where some users argued her withdrawal was a moment of weakness or abandonment of her team. Others, like Ryan, viewed it as a testament to how the demands of elite gymnastics can wear down even the most talented individuals.
At the time of the Tokyo Olympics, Biles was preparing to testify at a US Senate hearing about the FBI’s suspected mishandling of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse investigation. More than 150 athletes, including Biles, said that the former USA Gymnastics team doctor sexually abused them under the guise of providing medical treatment. Allegations against Nassar were first presented in July 2015, but no arrest was made until December 2016.
Before the Senate Judiciary Committee in August 2021, Biles criticized “an entire system that enabled and perpetuated his abuse,” including USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. She later told New York magazine that she “should have quit way before Tokyo, when Larry Nassar was in the media for two years.”
It reinforced what Ryan had observed through interviews with nearly 100 athletes, trainers, sports psychologists and other experts while writing her book: that “the whole structure of gymnastics actually focused on not caring at all about what happens to these girls.”
“The dangling gold medal at the end of their career, or during their careers … and they needed to get there and no holds barred,” Ryan said.
Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper about Biles in 2021, former teammate and three-time Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman also criticized USA Gymnastics for failing to properly support athletes.
“USA Gymnastics has been an absolute disaster for years and unfortunately not enough has changed for us to believe in a safer future,” Raisman said. “I think this just really shows the lack of leadership of USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee.”
However, there is hope that a brighter future is in store for USA Gymnastics. A new mission statement, organizational values and an Athlete Bill of Rights were adopted in late 2020. More than two-thirds of the organization’s staff joined in 2018 or later.
“Since that time, our top priority has been to transform our culture to one that prioritizes athlete health and wellness in all of our decisions, policies and actions,” USA Gymnastics spokesperson Jill Geer told CNN Sport via email. “There is no question that the sport’s previous culture was harmful to many individuals.”
“It is incredibly gratifying to see athletes like Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Suni Lee being excited and happy to return to the sport,” Geer wrote. “That elite gymnastics is a sport they want to come back to reinforces that USA Gymnastics has been on the right track with our cultural transformation. It is something we continue to work on every day.”
In October 2022, USA Gymnastics announced a new policy that allows for all National Team members to receive up to eight mental health care visits per year, to be reimbursed up to $125 per visit by USA Gymnastics.
The policy has since been reviewed, according to Geer, and USA Gymnastics will now cover more than eight mental health care visits per year for National Team athletes “if there is a surplus of funds projected for the year.”
The organization had previously implemented a mental health emergency action plan for all National Team camps and competitions, as well as providing an onsite “psychological services provider” at “nearly all” artistic gymnastics National Team camps.
As for Biles’ return — and that of 2012 Olympic gold-medalist Douglas — Ryan is optimistic that it is proof of positive change within elite gymnastics, including a shift away from the idea that young, often prepubescent teenage girls are the ideal age for competitive gymnastics, and that those entering adulthood are nearing retirement.
“It’s going to show that you don’t need to be 14, that you can be the best in the world at 27,” Ryan said. “That’s enormous, right? That you can stay in this sport and stay healthy in this sport, because you can’t compete at 27 unless you’ve taken care of yourself.”
“I just can’t imagine there’s still rot at the core of USA Gymnastics,” Ryan added. “Those women are not going to let that happen.”
Fans and fellow athletes alike are excited to witness the gymnastics great back in action on Saturday. Biles topped the all-around field at the US women’s national team camp in July, winning the event with a score of 57.650.
“Simone’s return is very exciting, and I am looking forward to getting back on the competition floor and seeing where this journey takes her,” Carey wrote via email.
With the opening ceremony of Paris 2024 now less than a year away, what’s to come for the most decorated US gymnast in history?