Simone Biles’ Olympic career will almost certainly come to an end Tuesday after she performs on the balance beam. She is competing in her second Olympics Games, and at this point in her career, she isn’t likely to participate in another with little else left to accomplish in her all-time great career.
Biles hasn’t confirmed that she’s done yet. But per the New York Times, it seems likely that Biles will retire after Tokyo, though she could attempt to qualify in one event at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
She has hinted about coming back for the 2024 Paris Games, though just in the vault, to honor her French coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi. But she is ready to retire; you can hear it in her voice. I’m old, she says. I’m tired. Stressed out. Everything hurts.
That’s a familiar refrain for gymnasts everywhere. Sure, there are a handful of gymnasts who compete into their late 20s. And Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan remarkably competed in the Tokyo Olympics this year at age 46. It was her eighth appearance.
However, more often, those gymnasts are an exception to an omnipresent gymnastics rule: the best female gymnasts tend to retire early.
How old is Simone Biles?
Simone Biles is 24 years old. By the time the next Summer Olympics arrives — Paris in 2024 — Biles will be 27. That wouldn’t necessarily preclude Biles from participating; there are still a handful of gymnasts that can compete at that age. Notably, 30-year-old Vanessa Ferrari earned a silver medal in the floor exercises at the Tokyo Olympics.
However, of the field of 24 gymnasts who competed in the women’s all-around final in the 2021 Olympics, just three gymnasts age 27 or older qualified: Germany’s Elisabeth Seitz (27), Switzerland’s Giulia Steingruber (27) and Germany’s Kim Bui (32). Top alternate Lieke Wevers (29) of the Netherlands also exceed that age.
Still, Olympic competition tends to favor younger gymnasts, especially in a country with a deep and hyper-competitive gymnastics talent pool like the United States’. In fact, no woman over the age of 19 has won an all-around Olympic competition since 1972, when 20-year-old Ludmilla Tourischeva of the Soviet Union emerged with the victory. And no woman over the age of 27 has won the all-around title since 1952, when 30-year-old Maria Gorokhovskaya earned the victory for the Soviet Union.
Suffice to say, Biles will be fighting an uphill battle if she does opt to stave off retirement and return for the 2024 Olympics.
Why do female gymnasts retire early?
One of the biggest reasons that female gymnasts retire early is the wear and tear that occurs while playing the sport. And as former women’s Olympic team coach John Geddert explains, it becomes “very, very difficult” for the women to find success as they get older.
“Without sounding condescending to young women, this is a little girl’s sport,” Geddert said in 2012, per the Washington Post. “With their body changes and the wear-and-tear everybody goes through, once they become women, it just becomes very, very difficult.”
Additionally, gymnastics requires a very stringent schedule that not all can adhere to. Training and competitions often take up most of each gymnast’s time and leave little time for traditional schooling and a social life.
Geddert saw these come to light first hand in 2012 when reigning all-around gold and silver medalists Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson failed to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team. In Johnson’s case, she suffered a knee injury while skiing and was unable to regain her pre-injury form. As for Liukin, she took a three-year hiatus from competition and was simply overtaken by younger gymnasts.
“Both of them were phenomenal athletes and phenomenally successful, but both of them took a lot of time off to go do their different things,” Geddert said of Liukin and Johnson. “And in this sport, it’s just not possible. You would think the rest would do you good, but your body just forgets how to do gymnastics.”
With that said, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Biles join the trend of retiring at a young age, especially considering that she told the New York Times her favorite part of her career so far has been her time off.
Simone Biles’ injury history
Before the Olympics, Biles noted that her body is starting to wear down and ache after years of gymnastics training. Specifically, she detailed that she was dealing with “unreal” ankle pain in an interview with the New York Times.
The wear and tear on her body had become what she called “unreal,” with the pain in her ankles making every excruciating step a reminder of how unforgiving gymnastics can be.
Biles also entered the event nursing a foot injury that had been bothering her for a while, as she detailed during an episode of “Simone vs. Herself” that was shot on May 24.
“So right now, what we’re dealing with is I just have a lot of fluid built up in there,” Biles said during Episode 5 of the Facebook Watch docuseries. “There’s nothing we can do at this point. We don’t have time for rest, we don’t have time for shots and all of that stuff, so tape it is.”
“I always pray,” Biles added. “And I’m like ‘Okay, just please let me survive these 11 weeks.'”
That explains why Biles’ right foot has been heavily wrapped when she has competed during the U.S. gymnastics trials and Olympic trials.
Simone Biles and the twisties
In addition to the physical ailments, Biles has also dealt with a mental issue during the 2021 Olympics: the “twisties.” The twisties are a sort of mental block that prevents gymnasts from knowing where they are while flipping through the air.
That’s why Biles withdrew from the team competition and the event finals that followed — the all-around, vault, uneven bars and floor exercises; she didn’t want to risk a significant physical injury.
“But at the end of the day it’s like, we want to walk out of here, not be dragged out here on a stretcher,” Biles told reporters, per Slate. “I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to. And I don’t know if it’s age — I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I’m also not having as much fun, and I know that.”
Later, she would explain via her Instagram that gymnasts “literally cannot tell up from down” while in the air when battling the twisties.
“It’s honestly petrifying doing a skill and but not having your mind & body in sync,” she wrote. “10/10 do not recommend.”
She added: “It’s the craziest feeling ever. Not having an inch of control over your body.”