TOKYO—Early Wednesday morning last week, the phone of Juntendo University professor Kazuhiro Aoki rang. On the line was an American with a discreet request: There was a gymnast who needed to use the school’s gym.
“This is a complicated matter,” he was told. “But this is for Biles.”
About 12 hours earlier, Simone Biles had stunned the world by pulling out of the women’s team final while it was still under way, a shaky vault leaving her certain she could not continue to perform safely or effectively.
Biles would later say she couldn’t understand how or why everything went wrong, but that she had lost her sense of where she was in the air as she twisted and turned. The same traits that made her indomitable in events like the vault and floor vanished. And her confidence was shredded.
A week later, she returned to competition to deliver a secure performance on the balance beam, anchored by a dismount she hadn’t done in over a decade. The image of Biles stumbling in terror was replaced by the sight of her waving from the podium with a bronze medal.
To get back to the competition floor, Biles needed a private gym with soft mats and foam pits to try to re-learn basic gymnastics—away from the intense spotlight that radiates over the greatest gymnast ever.
She found it in a quiet distant suburb of Tokyo, in a facility near rice fields about an hour’s drive from the competition venue.
Two hours after Aoki got the call, Biles arrived. He had quickly talked to the gymnastics coaches. They locked all the entrances for her. No one would catch a glimpse of her as she tried to regain skills that had been hard-wired for her just days earlier.
She practiced for two hours that day. Then she came back for three more days. Each time, Aoki said, she was accompanied by her coaches and a medical provider.
The rare glimpse of this secretive boot camp came from Biles herself. Last week, as the outside world questioned why the sport’s pre-eminent talent would have withdrawn during her sport’s premier event, she posted videos to her Instagram story that showed exactly why.
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She posted a vivid outtake of a grim crash as she tried, and failed, to twist from the uneven bars. In competition, without the additional mats of the secret practice gym, the consequences could have been grave. But instead of being dangerous, Biles could land on piles of mats or into a large collection of foam cubes to cushion her falls.
When she answered questions from fans on the social media platform about her problems and how she was continuing to train safely, she explained that she was going back to the basics and relying on soft surfaces.
“There is a place here in Japan that has been so sweet to open their doors for me to train,” she added.
“So shout out to you,” she wrote with a heart emoji, “you know who you are.”
Her struggles were a jarring sight for Aoki, who was fully aware of what Biles was capable of at her best. He had seen it himself.
That was because Biles and the American women had used the gym for their pre-Games training camp earlier in July—the same camp where the entire team’s hopes had almost been upended, after a vaccinated alternate tested positive for Covid-19. For a moment, then, it was unclear if anyone would be allowed to compete.
The gym is normally a training venue for athletes at the university, including Daiki Hashimoto, the 19-year-old who won gold in the men’s all-around a day after Biles’s team competition withdrawal, and the high bar final about an hour after she returned to the competition floor. Aoki knew what an Olympic gold-medal contender might look like.
Before the Games began, Aoki thought Biles seemed to be in phenomenal condition. But when she returned the morning after her dramatic withdrawal, he saw her look downcast. Unlike before, she frequently fell.
“She looked like a totally different person,” Aoki said. “Her movements were not smooth, and she often got frozen.”
She looked like a different person because she felt like a different person. Biles would later describe how she felt mentally lost after a practice session before the team final. Her issues were on full display when she performed a frightening and uncharacteristically poor vault, leading her to withdraw from the event—for both her own safety and the team’s success.
She spent the week meeting with medical professionals, sports psychologists—and training at the university’s gym. Meanwhile, she withdrew from the individual all-around final, then event finals on the vault, floor and uneven bars.
Then, about 24 hours before the last women’s gymnastics event, Biles was finally cleared to perform on the balance beam.
By then, people around her thought she could do it safely. But nobody knew how it would actually look beyond that. Not her coaches. Not Biles. And not the college professor who gave her a gymnastics sanctuary in Chiba.
“I was really moved. How could she switch from such a miserable situation to this?” Aoki said. “How could she pull it off?”
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