‘It’s just so devastating’: Olympic delay is especially hard for gymnasts

Published: April 2, 2020 1:14:09 pm

It would have been significant if Simone Biles, the face of the American team going into Tokyo, competed this summer to defend her all-around Olympic title.

By Juliet Macur

Time after time last Thursday, she tried to focus on her vault, but none of her flips, twists or landings ended up just right. All she wanted to do was go home and weep under her bedcovers. She wiped away tears.

Her coaches, she later said, thought she had cried because of her poor practice. But Skinner, an alternate for the 2016 Olympics training for the Tokyo Games, said it was something more.

“It hit me that I only had five more months to push hard toward the Olympics and now that finish line is so far away,” Skinner said Sunday in a telephone interview, regarding the postponement of the games until next year. “It’s just so devastating.”

Skinner is just one of thousands of other Olympic hopefuls and Olympians — including Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history — who are anxious about the schedule change that has upended their regimented lives. Add the extra stress of the coronavirus outbreak and it’s no wonder the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee sent coaches recommendations to help athletes cope. The No. 1 tip is, “Grief belongs to the griever,” because the postponement has elicited such raw and deep feelings from athletes who had hoped to compete in the Olympics this summer.

The rescheduling of the Olympics has hit female gymnasts particularly hard, considering that their window for Olympic success is so tiny. Most female Olympic gymnasts are teenagers who compete in only one Summer Games before their bodies mature, adding weight and height that makes it harder to twist and flip. They also start the sport so young, much younger than their male counterparts, that their bodies break down and can’t last. It has been 48 years since an Olympic gold medalist in the women’s all-around was older than 19.

So it would have been significant if Biles, the face of the American team going into Tokyo, competed this summer to defend her all-around Olympic title. She is 23 and cried in her gym’s locker room when she heard news of the postponement.

“I’m still taking it day by day to see if I’ll continue or what’s going to happen,” Biles said on Wednesday in a telephone interview from her home outside of Houston. “Mentally, I don’t know if I can handle it. It’s going to be hard. I was already battling with myself mentally if I could do it this year.”

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