Simone Biles’s brilliant comeback thrills SA gymnastics star Caitlin Rooskrantz
After a two-year break to look after her mental health, the superstar gymnast is back with a bang – and five more medals.
One of the great sports stars, Simone Biles, is back to her best. The American gymnast recently excelled at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships, where she added more history to an already stellar career.
Biles returned to competitive gymnastics in August, after two years out, competing and winning at the US Classic in Chicago. She seems to be in better shape than ever – both physically and mentally.
At the beginning of October, she capped off what seemed like an unlikely comeback by becoming the most decorated gymnast in history – male or female.
The five medals she clinched at the World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium, took her medals tally in championships and the Olympic Games to 37. In the process, she comfortably surpassed the record of 33 held by retired Belarusian Vitaly Scherbo.
“All in all, I don’t think it will hit me until I retire and then look back to see everything that I’ve done,” said Biles after adding another chapter to a remarkable career, which also boasts four Olympic golds.
A full-circle moment
It was also in Antwerp that Biles announced herself to the world, when she competed at the 2013 World Championships. Then 16, she won four medals: two gold, a silver and a bronze.
After a two-year hiatus to tend to her mental health, it made sense for her to return to the city that launched her career to stratospheric heights.
At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics – which were delayed by a year because of Covid-19 – Biles withdrew midway through the competition.
She cited having the “twisties” – a mental block that causes a gymnast to struggle suddenly to execute even the most basic moves. In a sport in which the athletes perform gravity-defying feats across events, this can result in serious injury. Or worse.
For Biles – who has risen to the pinnacle of the sport and revolutionised it, to the point where she has five moves named after her – competing in such a mental state was going to be a risk, and one she was not willing to take.
As a black woman in a sport traditionally dominated by white people – particularly from Eastern Europe – Biles has had to contend with racism in her career, just as the Williams sisters did during their rise to the upper echelons of tennis.
In the aftermath of Biles’s magnificent debut at the World Champs in 2013, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito admitted to telling a teammate: “Next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we can win too.”
When Biles pulled out of the Olympics, some dismissed her mental health struggles, labelling her selfish and weak. A quitter.
“I had to prove to myself that I could still get out here and twist,” Biles said after her successful return to global competition in Belgium.
“I could prove all the haters wrong. Show them I’m not a quitter, this, that and the other. For me, I didn’t care where I finished. As long as I was out there twisting again and finding the joy for gymnastics again, who cares?”
‘A really big inspiration’
Many people are elated to see Biles back at her best. Among her admirers is South Africa’s star gymnast Caitlin Rooskrantz (21).
The Johannesburg-born Olympian – who qualified for her second successive Games at the recent World Championships in Belgium – waxed lyrical about the influence of Biles on the sport.
“Simone Biles is a really big inspiration for every existing gymnast,” Rooskrantz told Daily Maverick. “You don’t even have to be a gymnast for her to be an inspiration to you. She’s in a league of her own. One of a kind.
“It’s been one of the biggest privileges to not only witness her competing but to compete alongside her.
“She’s had a massive impact on the sport of gymnastics. She’s completely changed the game.”
Rooskrantz, who knows first-hand the demands that come with being a gymnast, as well as the importance of the mind and body being in sync in competition, lauded the American for her brave decision in Tokyo two years ago.
“Gymnasts are supposed to be invincible. You don’t step down for anything. You can overcome everything,” Rooskrantz said.
“So what happened at the Tokyo Games … For her to step down and take care of her mental health, is one of the best things she could have done for the sport of gymnastics,” the former Parktown Girls pupil said.
“When Simone Biles, one of the best in the world, steps down and admits she’s not okay and needs to take care of herself mentally, it’s a huge statement to the culture and sport of gymnastics. She opened a lot of doors.”
Rooskrantz has been opening doors and igniting the dreams of many future African gymnasts herself with her achievements over the past few years. At the most recent Olympics, she became the first South African female gymnast to compete on that stage since 2004.
She then took part in her first Commonwealth Games in 2022, where she picked up bronze in the uneven bars segment – her favourite event. She is elated to be travelling to her second Olympics in Paris next year.
“I am overjoyed. I’m really proud. All glory to God. It was a big goal for me after Tokyo,” Rooskrantz said.
“It was a tough journey overall. I was also away from home for a month, doing a bunch of different competitions. So physically and mentally it was a bit of a rough one.
“Not everything went exactly as planned. But the biggest plan came together, which was achieving my second outright Olympics qualification via the World Champs …
“It’s a big weight off my shoulders. I know I’m going. Everything is set. Now I can just fully focus on my preparation.”
As for Biles, whom Rooskrantz will encounter again in Paris next year, she is on top of the world right now. Not just as a gymnast, but as a human being too.
“I’m making a bigger effort into taking care of my mind and my body, which includes going to therapy once every week,” Biles told Olympics.com.
When they end their careers, both Biles and Rooskrantz will be etched into the annals of gymnastics. Each has already rewritten history in her own way. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.