As It Happens·Q&A

Simone Biles 'an inspiration' for prioritizing her mental health, says gymnast

Former British Olympian Claudia Fragapane knows firsthand how dangerous it is to perform when you’re not mentally prepared. That’s why she's singing the praises of Simone Biles.

Claudia Fragapane fell on her neck and head the last time she performed with the ‘twisties’

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the team final and the all-around competition at the Tokyo Games this week to focus on her mental well-being. (Reuters)

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Gymnast Claudia Fragapane knows firsthand how dangerous it is to perform when you're not mentally prepared.

That's why the former British Olympian is singing the praises of Simone Biles, the U.S. champion who announced she's withdrawing from the all-around competition at the Tokyo Games this week to focus on her mental well-being. USA Gymnastics said Biles will be evaluated before deciding if she will participate in next week's individual events.

The decision comes a day after Biles removed herself from the team final following one rotation on the vault, in which she exhibited an uncharacteristically shaky performance.

Fragapane says Biles, who she has competed against, risked injury or worse had she stayed the course. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Ginella Massa. 

How difficult is it to hear an athlete at that level say "I'm out?" What does it take to get to that point?

Being an athlete myself, you have to take on so much. And there's a lot of stress … behind [the] scenes about being a gymnast. And she's got way more pressure than what all of us have put together, because a lot of people expect her to get gold medals, to be fine all the time, and for it to be easy. But it just proves that she is human, and that she does get really nervous, and it's really hard for her at times.

Let me take you to that moment where … she did that vault where she kind of wobbled on the landing. Can you walk us through what you saw when you watched that?

I just felt like she got kind of lost in the air. I didn't think she was as comfortable going in as what she normally is, as confident and as at ease … and the pressure just got to her.

She could have hurt herself. And that's really, really scary.

If she can't do this Olympics, then it's going to be really, really upsetting. But she just has to put her mental health first.- Claudia Fragapane, gymnast 

She later said she was having a bit of "the twisties." And I'd love for you to explain a little bit what that means and just how dangerous it can be.

The twisties is when … you sometimes get a bit of blockage when it comes to twisting. You get confused.

It's so dangerous, because if you pull out halfway through and you get lost, you could be in any direction, and you don't know.

With us gymnasts, we know exactly where we're going, where we're about to land. We're very good at spotting everything. And obviously Simone is even better at all of that. So for her to stop halfway through, she could have been at a totally different angle.

And it messed everything up, including — obviously, it was hard for her mental health as well. And I just hope she's OK after that, because it takes a lot on the mind and body.

I think what you're talking about is kind of that muscle memory, right? Like doing a move without really thinking about it. And then suddenly you're really thinking about it, and you've completely psyched yourself out.

Yeah.

How hard is it to come back from that?

Some people don't come back from it. This is the scary thing about it. 

So I just hope she does pull through. And if she can't do this Olympics, then it's going to be really, really upsetting. But she just has to put her mental health first.

Claudia Fragapane, pictured here at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Montreal in 2017, says she relates to Biles' experience, and supports her decision to withdraw. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

You've had some pretty dramatic experiences with this yourself. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

I was going for one of my Olympic trials [and] I was feeling very stressed and I just wanted to do really well. All I want to do is get into the Olympic team. And having obviously that year off, like everyone else, struggled a little bit because of COVID.

When I got onto the floor, I just felt really tired and drained. My … personal coaches had been amazing. They kept asking me if I was OK. And I just said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm fine."

I was going into my last tumble and it was quite slow [on] the entry. So I said to myself, "I'll just do a single somersault." But then when I was halfway through the single somersault, I automatically went into gymnast mode and went into my competition mode, and basically was like, it's all or nothing. And I randomly went for another somersault, which was crazy. 

I landed on my head and neck, and I passed out on the floor for a few seconds. And then next thing I know, I'm on a stretcher to be rushed to the hospital.

I wasn't allowed to, like, move. So I was left on my back from 3 p.m. till 12 a.m., because I could have been paralyzed. So that was really scary. Luckily, I just got a really bad concussion.

I went into my last trial. The week before, I started getting really dizzy before my tumbles. And I couldn't push anymore because it was getting really dangerous. And that's when I said to myself, "OK, I'll stop."

But even a little bit beforehand, I was still pushing, and it can be really dangerous…. So for Simone to realize that straightaway and just say, "Look, hang on, I'm just going to stop. I'd rather put my mental health first instead of a gold medal," I really give my hat off to her. She's just such an inspiration.

Biles, flanked by her teammates, pulls her silver medal over her head on Tuesday at the Tokyo Games. Biles withdrew from the competition following one rotation, but her American teammates held on for silver. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

How significant is it to hear someone like Simone Biles — who, you know, is described as the GOAT, greatest of all time, has all of these Olympic achievements, there's nothing she can't do — and for her to step back and say, "No, I have to prioritize my mental health?"

You've got a lot of athletes … and gymnasts that will say, "No, I'm just going to go for it." But for her, she's not a selfish person.

In her interview, she said these girls that she trained with have worked so hard, [she doesn't] want to cost them a medal. And for her just to step aside and not push herself, and just let the team carry it, is amazing. 

And yet, at the same time, there are people who are critical. You know, [British pundit] Piers Morgan accusing her of walking out on her teammates and saying: Are mental health issues going to be "the go-to excuse for any poor performance?" What do you make of the critics?

Those people that are writing all of [that] stuff, and any horrible people writing stuff on social media, to be honest, they haven't achieved any major competition, any anything major in their life.

All they do is they criticize, and they sit behind that computer posting horrible things. And I think people like that are just jealous. They want a reaction from other people.

And I think, if I'm going to give advice for Simone, I'd say ignore these comments … and just to keep living your life, because you only live one life and you should just be as happy as you can.


Written by Sheena Goodyear, with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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