Competition Used To Reign Supreme In Gymnastics. The Tokyo Team Is Changing That
"It's not called gym-nice-tics" feels painfully outdated now.
Gymnastics is an individual sport, but ask any gymnast and they’ll tell you they wouldn’t be able to achieve their success without their community: their coaches, their teammates, their doctors, their family and friends. If you’re a casual gymnastics fan, that sense of camaraderie might have gone unnoticed — until now. The Summer 2021 Olympics are a spectacular showcase for Team USA’s love and care for one another.
Simone Biles withdrew from five competitions in Tokyo due to a case of the “twisties,” choosing instead to cheer on her teammates as they pursued their Olympic dreams. As a result, lesser-known athletes like Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner (who took Biles’ place in the floor and vault event finals) have taken glorious turns in the spotlight while earning gold and silver medals, respectively. The behind-the-scenes values that have always made training and competing as a gymnast so special — community, empathy, support — are finally on proud display.
If you’ve seen the iconic 2006 gymnastics movie Stick It, you know “it’s not called gym-nice-tics.” I saw it in theaters with my gymnastics teammates; we wore matching warm-up suits and scrunchies and laughed at that line, because it felt totally wrong to us. We were nice to each other. We held each other’s feet during ab exercises at practice, wove braids into each other’s hair before big meets, and cheered each other on as we performed routines. “You got this!” we’d shout as someone launched into a tricky tumbling pass. “Stay strong!” we’d yell after someone scrambled back up onto the beam after a fall.
But outside that bubble of chalk dust and sweat and hairspray, the world of gymnastics had a very different reputation. Competition, not camaraderie, reigned supreme. The two biggest American gymnastics stars of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing were Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson — best friends, teammates, and yes, competitors. “The entire world plotted us against one another,” Johnson East (now married) recalled in a 2018 video on her YouTube channel. “As soon as all-around hit, it was like Nastia or Shawn … We kind of felt like, well, they don’t want us to be friends. They won’t allow us to be friends.”
Liukin won gold as the all-around champion at the 2008 Summer Games; Johnson East took home the silver medal that same night. During Liukin’s downtime in Beijing, she read Twilight, and the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob comparisons hit home for her. “You couldn’t like both [me and Johnson East]. It was like Twilight,” Liukin said in that same 2018 video. “We thought ... that’s what was supposed to happen. Or that’s how we were supposed to act.” Following that Olympic Games, the pair didn’t speak for the next eight years. They’ve since repaired their friendship; Liukin is even the godmother to Johnson East’s daughter.
The perception of gymnastics as a purely individual sport continued even into the early days of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, as the bulk of the media attention focused on Biles. It was understandable — Biles, after all, is one of the most decorated gymnasts in history — but Team USA is stacked with fierce competitors. Nobody does back-to-back-to-back release moves on bars like Sunisa Lee, and alternate MyKayla Skinner’s story is the stuff sports movies are made of (she was an alternate who never competed on the 2016 Olympic team, and at the age of 24, she fought hard to make it onto the 2020 team).
But once Biles withdrew from the team finals on July 27 — and subsequently the all-around as well as the vault, beam, and floor finals — the conversation shifted. Instead of Biles’ athletic prowess dominating the news, a much-needed discussion about athletes’ mental health emerged. We got to see Biles give her teammates pep talks and root for their success from the sidelines. And we got to see Carey, Skinner, Lee, and Olympic newcomers Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum shine. What a beautiful — and long overdue — moment for the sport of gymnastics.
It’s hard not to be moved by the shows of support between Biles and her teammates. Photos of Biles in the stands show her beaming with delight as her fellow American gymnasts perform. On Instagram, the GOAT wrote a tribute to her teammates: “I’ll forever be inspired by your determination to not give up and to fight through adversity! They stepped up when I couldn’t. Thanks for being there for me and having my back!” When Skinner won her first-ever Olympic medal on Aug. 1, a silver on vault — an event she would not have competed in if Biles had not withdrawn — Biles celebrated the win on her Instagram Story. “I’m so freaking proud of you,” she wrote to Skinner. Meanwhile, per NPR, Skinner said, "I dedicate this medal to Simone. I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for her … I told her I would be doing this one for her. She said, 'Don't do it for me, do it for yourself,' so technically it's for all of us."
This watershed moment for the gymnastics community took even Biles by surprise. “The outpouring [of] love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics, which I never truly believed before,” she tweeted on July 28. On Aug. 3, she told Olympics.com, "After [the] team final, we went to the [Olympic Village], and honestly, I expected to feel a bit embarrassed, and [athletes] were coming up to me saying how much I meant to them; how much I had done for their world. That was the craziest feeling ever. In that moment, I was like, 'There's more than gymnastics and medals.'"
It’s always heartwarming to watch athletes supporting each other, but that simple act takes on even greater meaning in this pandemic-era Olympic Games. Due to the Games’ strict COVID-19 safety measures, competitors are not allowed to bring loved ones into the stands, or even into the country. Parents, siblings, and partners were left behind. On the ground in Tokyo, these athletes only have their coaches and each other — and they’re making the most of it.
For gymnasts, the Tokyo Olympics aren’t only significant because of the pandemic. They’re also the first since a series of abuse scandals rocked the sport shortly after the 2016 Olympics. Larry Nassar — who worked with USA Gymnastics (USAG), the sport’s governing body, in various medical roles from 1986 to 2015 — is now serving at least 300 years in prison for federal charges of child pornography and obstruction of justice, sexual assault, and molestation after more than 265 women made allegations against him. USAG has been in a state of reckoning ever since the allegations against Nassar came to light five years ago. Three presidents and the entire board of directors resigned, the organization filed for bankruptcy, and it has been sued by more than 500 women (including Biles) for sexual abuse by Nassar, their coach, or someone else affiliated with the organization. Elite Daily previously reached out to USAG for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.
Many top gymnasts (Biles included) have been outspoken against USAG. If these athletes no longer trust USAG to act in their best interests, it’s possible they’re turning to a better resource — each other. While gymnasts compete solo, they certainly aren’t alone. I’m glad they have each other to lean on. And I’m glad the world finally sees and celebrates that, too.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.