A LOOK AT SAFETY IN GYMNASTICS: PART ONE

We spoke with Olympic gymnasts from around the world about the current state of safety at competitions. Twenty years after the Sydney vault controversy, things have changed. And not necessarily for the better.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Hey everyone. Ari here. 

So a few months ago, my producers and I released a five-part miniseries about women’s gymnastics at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And, if you haven’t listened to it yet…spoiler alert…. during the Women’s All Around Final in Sydney, the vault was accidentally set two inches too low, putting gymnasts’ physical safety at risk and forever changing the competition results. The vault being too low, and the way it was handled, is considered one of the biggest mistakes in Olympic history. 

And in the aftermath of that unprecedented, dangerous error, the people in charge of international gymnastics competitions say that safety has become a bigger priority, that it’s become the priority. And well yes, that same mistake hasn’t happened again. 

During the Tokyo Olympics this past summer, gymnasts, both ones who were competing and ones watching from home, saw things that troubled them. And they started talking; to the press, to their social media followers, to anyone who would listen, to say that keeping gymnasts safe from injury, on the competition floor, did not seem like it was, in fact, the top priority. 

[MUSIC]

At the Tokyo Olympics, there were rules and procedures being used that gymnasts described as, quote, “​​a safety hazard for everybody” and “a recipe for disaster.” Some of the most famous gymnasts in the world, from Nadia Comenci to Suni Lee, wanted people to know: everything is not OK. 

So I decided to reach out to gymnasts with one simple question: “Do you feel safe out there, in the arena, at competitions like the Olympics?” 

And in response, gymnast after gymnast told me about what they see as unnecessary hazards, about injuries that might’ve been avoided, about how much hasn’t changed in the past twenty years when it comes to prioritizing safety. 

That’s why we wanted to bring you this story— “A Look at Safety in Gymnastics” —told over two episodes. 

I’m Ari Saperstein, and this is Blind Landing. 

Part One: Going to the Mat 

DANUSIA FRANCIS: My favorite part of the village was definitely the view, and hopefully that doesn’t sound too cheesy…

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Danusia Francis had finally made it to the Olympics.

DANUSIA FRANCIS: Every single morning when I woke up, I opened the curtains onto our balcony. On one side was the flag walkway and it was just incredible, and then on the other side you had the Olympic rings and you could see the water in the background, and like, the sun was shining everyday…

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): It was summer 2021, and Danusia was in the Olympic Village in Tokyo.

DANUSIA FRANCIS: It was just unbelievable and it just was a pinch me moment, like, I’m here, at the Olympics. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Getting there, to the Olympics, took Danusia a very long time. Because her journey to the Games, it first started back in 2012. 

DANUSIA FRANCIS: Growing up I always thought 2012 was my only shot. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): In 2012, Danusia missed out on the London Olympics after being named an alternate to the British Team, and for most gymnasts, that might’ve been it.

DANUSIA FRANCIS: And then when 2016 came around I was like “wow, I’ve got another shot!”

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Danusia switched nations and started competing for Jamaica, but again, found herself the runner-up to a spot for the 2016 Games.

DANUSIA FRANCIS: And 2021 wasn’t in my plans at all…

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But at the qualifying event, Danusia had a great competition, and ranked high enough to seal a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics. After three tries over a decade, Danusia was on her way to becoming an Olympian.

But while Danusia was taking in that beautiful view of the Tokyo Olympic village—of the flags, of the rings—there was this small distraction hanging overhead, this other thing on her mind.

DANUSIA FRANCIS: Literally the day before leaving for Tokyo, I hurt my knee, but just tweaked it, like, we weren’t too worried.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): After all, there was still a week until the competition started, a week to train at the Olympic facilities and make sure her knee was good. But after the first day of training in Tokyo… 

DANUSIA FRANCIS: Something had gone on that just wasn’t allowing it to stay that strong in the landing, and it was still a little bit sore, so we thought we’d give it another day…

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): So Danusia tried to take it easy, and with five days to go, she started getting back on track.

DANUSIA FRANCIS: The next day we tried to do more skills, the double twist (that was alright) and the double back with help (that was alright) and by then I was like “OK I can land…”

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Now with only three days until the start of competition in Tokyo, Danusia’s feeling OK, and she’s in the gym, training bars, practicing her dismount, and then…

DANUSIA FRANCIS: When I landed my knee collapsed in and it was really painful, and then the doctor obviously reveals that I’ve tore my ACL, and the shock that hit me, I was like… just, I just still didn’t expect it.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): A torn ACL. For some, that means months of surgery, and rehab, and recovery. For others, it can be a career-ender. Danusia didn’t know then which it would be, all she knew is that there would be no more double twists and double flips in Tokyo. 

But even still, Danusia wasn’t ready to give up on her Olympic dream. 

FEMALE COMMENTATOR: On uneven bars, Danusia Francis.. 

[SOUNDS OF CROWD]

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Before withdrawing from the Games, Danusia got the green light from her doctor to go do three quick swings on the bars the first day of competition.

FEMALE COMMENTATOR: She wasn’t sure if she was gonna compete but — 

MALE COMMENTATOR: — she wanted that moment, even if it’s just something as simple as this.

[SOUNDS OF BARS SWINGING]

 [SOUNDS OF CROWD]

DANUSIA FRANCIS: And then right then, I was an Olympian!

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): It was a decade of waiting for an Olympic experience that lasted all of 11 seconds. 

DANUSIA FRANCIS: And yes, it wasn’t exactly how I wanted it to happen, but we made it happen. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Danusia tried to make the best of it, tried to keep enjoying that beautiful view from her balcony and the view from the stands, which is where, a few days later, Danusia watched as one her competitors also found outlast minutethat her body wouldn’t be able to do what she had been training for. A gymnast who also had an Olympic experience that was very different from what she, and the world, expected.

[SOUNDS OF CROWDS]

[SOUNDS OF VAULT]

NBC: Wow, a very uncharacteristic vault for Simone, but it looked like she got almost lost in the air… 

PEACOCK: This is not something that we’ve seen from her…

CBS: The statement says Simone has withdrawn from the team final competition, she will be assessed daily, to determine… 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): If you were a human being, alive on planet earth in the summer of 2021, odds are you know what happened to Simone Biles at Tokyo, when the greatest gymnast of all time pulled out of the team final because of “the twisties.”

DANUSIA FRANCIS: Yeah, it was hard to see, because when you experience the twisties, especially when it comes out the blue like that, and she’s not sure if she’s gonna land on her backside, neck…for Simone I can’t imagine the frustration that she felt. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Having the twisties means you suddenly, inexplicably lose your spatial awareness, so whether you’re doing a single twist or triple twisting double back, if you don’t know where you are in the air, you could end up landing on your neck and not your feet.

And that, that’s the part of the story we all know. 

Here’s the part you may have missed. 

DANUSIA FRANCIS: We found out she got to go to a different gym. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Every day for the next week, Simone didn’t go train at Olympic training facilities. Instead, Simone Biles got in a car, drove an hour each way, to go train at a gym on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Maybe she was looking for a place free of distractions, maybe she was looking for privacy that the Olympic training facilities couldn’t provide, but Simone was definitely also looking for soft mats.

DANUSIA FRANCIS: In the Olympic training gyms, you don’t have any opportunity to go onto a soft surface, so that’s why she went and found this gym, luckily. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): In order to work through the twisties, Simone needed to retrain her brain by essentially relearning her routines — practice, practice, practice — and had to do all of that on fluffy, soft landing mats so she wouldn’t get injured, because the hard mats used in competitions, the only ones available at the Olympic training gym, are incredibly unforgiving. 

The hard mats are a thin layer above the ground, just four inches thick, so if you’re not 100% ready to compete on hard mats — and honestly, even if you are — the risk of injury is much higher than training on the soft mats, which are about 12 inches thick. 

And these soft landing mats and surfaces, you’ll find them at basically every single gym, any training environment, except for training gyms at the biggest international competitions, competitions like the Olympics. And as Danusia sat there, in the Olympic village, hearing about Simone’s daily trek to a gym with soft mats, she thought to herself, “Well, wait a second. Why doesn’t every competition just have soft mats available in the training gym?” 

DANUSIA FRANCIS: Yeah, I hadn’t ever really thought about it because obviously that’s just what I’ve always known. But then the conversation of Simone came up and just how dangerous that was gonna be if she had only the competition training gyms. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): See, gymnasts train all year long on soft mats and only start using hard mats just weeks before a competition, and someone like Danusia, nursing a minor injury — which a lot of the Olympic gymnasts are — might opt to train on a soft mat right up until the moment they compete, but of course that wasn’t an option for Danusia, as her knee pain got worse and worse while training on the hard mats at the Olympic facilities. 

Danusia started to wonder, would she have torn her ACL if they had soft mats available at the Olympic training facilities?

DANUSIA FRANCIS: I also saw it from my own perspective, while I was nursing my knee injury and I was trying to test out different skills, how much I personally would have benefited from some softer landings, but, it was either do your tumbles on the hard ground or don’t do them at all.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): “Do your tumbles on the hard ground or don’t do them at all.” When I heard Danusia say this, I just thought…really? Those are the options? Who’d ever think that the problem for gymnasts at the Olympics, would be the kind of mats available in training? 

For the many of us who only tune in to watch gymnastics every four years when the Olympics are happening, we’re all so well trained by the media and the commentators to think that we know what the gymnasts are worried about; will they step out of bounds? Will they wobble on balance beam? And, of course, we’re told the number one thing on a gymnasts mind…

COMMENTATORS: Meets the stick…

…stuck the landing!

Watch the landing right here…

What a beautiful landing!

And nails the landing!

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But the thing is, while we’re all worried about whether or not they’ll stick the landing, the gymnasts have so many other concerns too. What’s really on their minds is everything leading up to landing, worries that begin in the training gym, and end on the competition floor. It’s the kind of stuff you wouldn’t know about from listening to the commentators, the kind of stuff you wouldn’t know when looking from the outside.

The kind of things you’d only know if you could see a competition through a gymnasts’ eyes.

So, what else are we missing? 

That’s after the break.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): Do you feel safe out there, in the arena, at competitions like the Olympics? 

I’ve spent the past few months talking with some of the top gymnasts from around the world, asking them that question, and in these conversations, there were three things that kept coming up again, and again, and again.

First, was what Danusia Francis talked about before the break; the lack of soft mats in the training gyms. And second, the second thing has to do with event finals (which is when gymnasts compete on just one apparatus; bars or beam or floor or vault), and this problem is maybe most apparent when it comes to vault finals.

SHALLON OLSEN: I competed at 2017 World in Montreal and 2018 World, and I placed second which was a huge step for me. 2019 the year after…

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is Shallon Olsen, who has so much experience with vault finals that when she was running down the list of finals she’s made, Shallon literally forgot about one of the Olympics she’s been in. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host) [IN TAPE]: And you were at 2016 Olympic vault event finals, right?

SHALLON OLSEN: Oh yeah, 2016, yeah. Forgot to include that.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): If you want to talk with someone about vault finals, you want to talk to Shallon Olsen. So when 2021 came around, Shallon made the Canadian team for the Tokyo Olympics.

SHALLON OLSEN: Olympics happens this year. I qualify into the vault final… 

MALE COMMENTATOR: Now Shallon Olsen from Canada — she’s won a medal at the World Championships on this event, now she’s trying to be the first Canadian to win an Olympic medal on this event…

SHALLON OLSEN: I have very high expectations of myself, especially at an Olympic Games…

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And rightly so, because Shallon had a real shot at a medal, and during the vault final, Shallon’s one of the last to go, and…

[VAULT SOUNDS]

FEMALE COMMENTATOR: Good on the landing but really messy in the air… slight bend, a hop on the landing…

SHALLON: And I come seventh. Obviously not the result that I was hoping for. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): But it wasn’t just the result that left Shallon walking away from the vault final feeling disappointed. The thing that made her frustrated, almost mad about how it all played out, was that Shallon and her competitors didn’t get the chance to do a touch-warm-up. 

SHALLON OLSEN: The one-touch-warm-up would be the girls line up and they’re allowed to, like, do a couple of vaults to feel for the equipment right before they go to compete.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): With any other part of international gymnastics competitions — qualifications, the team final, the all around — right before gymnasts compete, they do a few quick run-throughs of their routines for a minute or two. That is what the “touch-warm-up” is. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host) [IN TAPE]: So, basically except for event finals, there’s no other competition ever that you’re doing where you’re not getting to have that one-touch right before you vault.

SHALLON OLSEN: No. And I think that the Olympics should include the one-touch-warm-up just for safety reasons. I can’t just go and throw an Amanar and expect it to land on my feet.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): The Amanar — that’s the incredibly difficult two-and-a-half twisting vault that a lot of top gymnasts compete. It’s one of those skills that, when you see it, looks like it shouldn’t be humanly possible. And Shallon says to do something that complex, safely, you need to warm up.

SHALLON OLSEN: It’s kind of like a progression. You start from like, a layout and then a full twist just to kind of get a feel for where I am and where the landing is. And especially when you’re throwing such difficult skills, it’s actually kind of dangerous and that just is kind of frustrating for not just me, but a lot of gymnasts.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And among those other frustrated gymnasts?

MCKAYLA MARONEY: Individual finals feels fucked up.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): One of them is McKayla Maroney. 

MCKAYLA MARONEY: Hello! It’s McKayla. I came on here because today was vault finals at The Olympics which is — it’s so near and dear and to my heart, you guys know. I competed on the Olympic team a vaulter…

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): McKayla, a retired gymnast who was part of the 2012 gold-winning US Olympic team, was not at Tokyo. Mckayla was at home in California, watching the Tokyo Olympics, seeing Shallon and some of the other vault finalists struggle, and decided to share her reaction to the competition on Instagram. Because McKayla wanted to tell her followers about this other part of what happens when you don’t get a warm-up.

MCKAYLA MARONEY: …But the biggest thing is staying warm, because as an athlete, you guys know, once you get cold, your muscles start to shut down and your gymnastics is gonna be completely different. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): And part of the reason that gymnasts and the muscles get cold is because of the wait time. See, the vault finalists warm up in the training gym before the competition starts, and then they step out into the arena, altogether at the same time. So if you’re the first or second or third gymnast to go, you end up competing maybe 15, 20, 30 minutes after warming up in the training gym. But if you’re one of the last in line, the seventh or eight gymnast, it could be 40 minutes, 50 minutes, or, in McKayla’s case in 2012…

MCKAYLA MARONEY: It took me about an hour of a wait before I competed my vault.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): In that hour, gymnasts can’t go back to the training gym. They just have to wait in the arena, on the side of the vault, desperately trying to keep their muscles warmed up and ready to go. 

MCKAYLA MARONEY: And you’re just — you have this little corner to just wave your arms and, like, try to stay warm and, like, jump around, but like, how warm can you really stay? ​​

BILL SANDS: Everyone’s standing around going nuts, trying to stay warm! And, uh, that’s just stupid, in my opinion.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): This is sports scientist Bill Sands. And when it comes to touch-warm-ups, Bill says there’s a lot of evidence that shows it’s dangerous to wait so long between warming up and competing.

BILL SANDS: Because, warm up effects dissipate. There have been a handful of studies that showed that after about 15 minutes of standing around, the warmup effect is gone — or most of it is gone — and you have to warm up again to be safe. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): So while gymnasts shouldn’t be competing if more than 15 minutes have passed since warming up, lots of gymnasts I talk to say they’re regularly waiting an hour before they compete. And remember, a big part of competing vault, before pushing off the vault with your hands, is having to sprint down an eighty foot runway at top speed. But when you wait for an hour, the gymnasts say their legs cannot do it.

MCKAYLA MARONEY: I’m banging my legs, I was, like, trying to keep my legs awake, and like, your legs feel like they’re not your legs, they feel like jello. It feels like you just ran a cold sprint. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): McKayla, widely considered one of the greatest vaulters of all time, she says that having to wait an hour and her legs going numb and not getting the touch-warm-up to fix those things, that’s why she fell on vault when it counted most.

MCKAYLA MARONEY: That’s why my vault sucked at the Olympics and that’s why I fell. So, people don’t know that, people don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes at all. And they just thought I choked, bitch, you try! Wait on the side, come back and do a two and a half, the most dangerous vault you’ve ever competed in your life that’s hard to do even when you are warmed up with no injuries. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): So, to recap. First, there’s the mats in training. Second, the lack of touch-warm-up for event finals. And third, the third most common safety concern that came up in my interviews with gymnasts, is also the one that really was the last thing I ever thought would be on a gymnasts’ mind in the midst of a competition. 

SHALLON OLSEN: The lighting, I’m gonna talk about the lights. The lights blaring in our faces.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): As in the arena lighting. Here’s how Shallon describes the lighting being a problem a few years ago, at the 2017 World Championships. 

SHALLON: In the back gym, like where the vault was, there was like a bright light shining right on the vault. And I was, like, squinting, trying to see the vault, and that’s a really dangerous situation to be in because, like, you can’t, like, run at a vault with eyes closed. That’s like running off the edge of a cliff and just expecting to not die. Like, that’s how I see it, basically.

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): A lot of gymnasts mentioned this lighting problem at 2017 Worlds. How they’d lost a sense of where they were while vaulting, got lost in the air because they couldn’t see. It was almost like having the twisties, but for a just moment. Except, that it was entirely preventable. 

I thought, surely this lighting problem must’ve just been a one-off incident. Like the Sydney vault problem, you know? Just a terrible mistake that happened once, and then never again. 

But no. Gymnasts say it happens all the time. In fact, the exact same thing happened four years later, at the Tokyo Olympics. Except this time, on the uneven bars.

SHALLON OLSEN: In, like, Tokyo there was this, like, light shining right where the bar is, and if the light is in your face, like, you can’t see where you’re placing your hands on the bar, like, it’s just dangerous. And if you can’t see the equipment, then I don’t know how they expect you to do gymnastics. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): As Shallon and her competitors have been trying to do the most difficult gymnastics skills in the world, they found themselves time and time again, facing the obstacle of bad lighting. 

SHALLON OLSEN: It’s honestly, like, really, really important for the athlete to be safe and, like, safety comes first, right? 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That question, that’s the question I’ve been trying to figure out the answer to, because when you hear about the safety concerns gymnasts have — about the training mats and the touch-warm-ups and the lighting — you have to wonder: does safety come first? And if it doesn’t, why not? And who is making that decision?

On the next episode …

DANUSIA FRANCIS: If I had a problem, I don’t even know how I’d go about it.

SHALLON OLSEN: It’s media coverage over the athletes safety.

BRENDAN SCHWAB: How can we address the power imbalance in relation to children? And not just waiting for the sports body to do the right thing. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN (host): That’s next time, on the second and final part of “A Look at Safety in Gymnastics” from Blind Landing.

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