Can college save the gymnastics star?

·Columnist
·7-min read

TOKYO — Simone Biles said she wouldn’t do anything different. She was fine until she wasn’t fine. She had control over everything until everything had control over her. Her bout with the so-called “twisties” can come at any time for any reason.

“People said it was stress related, but I honestly could not tell you,” Biles said.

No one can tell. That’s the problem. And that’s why it isn’t easy to figure out how to avoid such a thing in the future — the best and strongest gymnast in the world completing just two of her expected 12 performances here.

There is a reason, however, that what Biles attempted — dominating two Olympics — is unheard of in this sport. No all-around gold or even silver medalist has returned to repeat in that event since 1980, when the sport was vastly different.

And while a diagnosis is impossible, it is fair to say Biles looked exhausted here, burnt out and uncertain, even through less than ideal practice sessions and qualifying. And it’s further fair to at least wonder if the grind of a decade in junior and then senior elite international training and competition — a relentless pursuit of improvement — just drained her.

It is why those in the sport are encouraged that the next generation of Americans don’t appear to be attempting Biles’ path of staying in the cutthroat world of international gymnastics.

With the NCAA finally allowing athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness, the sport’s young stars no longer have to choose between millions in endorsements and college eligibility.

It has opened a floodgates: Sunisa Lee (Auburn), Jordan Chiles (UCLA), Jade Carey (Oregon State) and Grace McCallum (Utah) are all choosing the less intense, more well-rounded life of a college gymnast that wasn’t available to Biles.

“I think honestly it will make me a lot happier just competing for a team,” said Lee, the all-around Olympic champion who says she wants to compete at the 2024 Paris Games. “Not individually like this, [which] is scary. I want to have some fun in college. Elite gymnastics has just been so mentally draining and exhausting.”

Can college save the gymnastic star?

Simone Biles, of the United States, preparers to perform on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Simone Biles, of the United States, preparers to perform on the balance beam during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

College not an option for Simone Biles

In August of 2014, Valorie Kondos Field, or “Miss Val” as the legendary former UCLA gymnastics coach is known throughout the sport, got a phone call from a then 17-year-old high school kid in Houston.

“Simone Biles,” the caller ID read.

Biles was the reigning, dominating, all-around world champion and thus the most coveted college gymnastics recruit ... ever. And she had good news for Miss Val.

“I want to sign with UCLA.”

Kondos Field soon excitedly declared to her husband: “‘We just got the ‘G.O.A.T.’ We just got the greatest recruit of all time.’ We knew even then that she was the best of all time.”

Not that Kondos Field ever expected to ever coach her. Within a year, Biles would turn pro to cash in on millions in endorsement and business opportunities while continuing to concentrate on elite international gymnastics.

“We knew she was going to go pro,” Field said. “There was no way. There was just no way she couldn’t …

“It certainly would have been great,” she said with a laugh.

The story has been a crowd pleaser for Kondos Field when she's retold it through the years — how the greatest recruit ever got away.

No one felt too bad for her, of course. Kondos Field won seven NCAA titles at UCLA before retiring in 2019. And she even credits the excitement over Biles' commitment for helping draw in some of the recruits who would win the 2018 national championship with the Bruins.

After the past two weeks however, you can wonder if it wasn’t just Kondos Field and UCLA who lost out when Simone Biles went pro.

Maybe Biles did, too.

Team USA gymnastics over the years slideshow embed
Team USA gymnastics over the years slideshow embed

College gymnastics is a subtly different sport from elite international gymnastics. First off, it’s mostly team-focused, not some lonely pursuit of improvement and perfection. Second, the scoring rewards the quality of execution, not the difficulty of the routine, which eliminates the pressure to add, with painstaking work, additional moves.

“I look at college gymnastics as a respite,” Kondos Field said.

Lee says she will be enrolled at Auburn in two weeks, and is excited to get away from the Olympic intensity for a bit, live in a dorm, and experience life. She isn’t giving up on anything. Her college coach, Jeff Graba, is the twin brother of her individual coach. The goal is to take a dual-track preparation — enjoy college sports while maintaining enough elite skills to jump back in when needed.

Gymnasts don’t have long careers, and while that’s often physical, it can also be mental and emotional. This isn’t football or basketball where you can compete into your 30s or even 40s. There is no understating the workload and sacrifice.

Everything builds to just four or five meets a year, with the culmination a single week every fourth turn of the calendar. Top American prospects train seven, eight hours a day, requiring them to be homeschooled as preteens. Practices are physically punishing, including almost impossible-to-maintain body weights and fitness levels. In Biles’ case, for part of her career she was a victim of USA Gymnastics and doctor Larry Nassar.

And the competition doesn’t take days off.

“We were basically in a closed training camp for a year and a half,” Russian gymnast Angelina Melnikova, who won a gold and two bronze medals here, said of her team’s Olympic prep. “[We were] working very hard without seeing our families or having a normal life.”

Was it worth it?

“Of course,” Melnikova said. “It was for the best because we were focused on the practice.”

They used to say that about the Karolyi camp and those lasted only a week or a month.

This is what it means to compete at that level. Can anyone maintain it?

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 16: The UCLA women's gymnastics team cheers before competing against Arizona State University at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, February 16, 2019. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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 an alternate on the 2016 Olympic Team. She said she was spent and thought her elite career was over. She decided, however, to get her education and compete at the University of Utah.

“For me I kind of started to hate gymnastics,” Skinner said. “We had [demanding former national team coordinator] Marta Karolyi, so times were very, very different. So college definitely helped me regain that love for the sport.”

Next thing you know, she was back.

“That’s what pushed me to go for that comeback,” said Skinner, 24, after winning a silver medal in vault. “‘I was so close last time, I want to go one more time.’ And here I am.”

Kondos Field has no idea what would have happened if Biles went to UCLA from 2016-2019, other than, “she would have won a lot of national championships.” The time spent on fundamentals, fun and the flair of the performance though, might have helped.

In competitive terms, it couldn’t have gone much worse. Biles left here with a bronze on beam and a silver in a team competition she had to withdraw from after one vault.

“You can do it unlike the Karolyis and still win,” Kondos Field said. “Yes [the US] won [in 2016], but there is a different way, a better way. I don’t think the word fun is the [word to describe college gymnastics]. I think it’s about finding joy in the sport. The nay-sayers say it’s about fun, but no no, it’s not about fun. It’s about joy. Joy comes from the pride of doing a job well.”

If nothing else, Kondos Field is happy that Lee is focused on Auburn, not, say, locking herself in a gym to add one more technical element to each rotation before next year’s world championship.

“I think Suni Lee will do great even if she is doing about half the level of difficulty,” Kondos Field said.

Can college provide the break while also providing a bridge to future games? We’ll see, but if Simone Biles, the great Simone Biles, couldn’t make the old way work, then a new way may be long overdue.

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