Simone Biles proves how much gymnastics has changed

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Dominique Moceanu is one of the few people who understands the pressure of being an Olympic gymnast. In 1996, the now-retired athlete was a member of the Magnificent Seven, the nickname given to the historic United States women’s gymnastics team that won the nation’s first gold in the team event. At just 14 years old, Moceanu became the youngest Olympic gold medalist in the history of American gymnastics. But behind the scenes, things weren’t so rosy.

In a recent tweet, Moceanu shared a heartbreaking video of those games: a recap of her beam routine where you can see the young gymnast falling and banging her head against the apparatus. Afterwards, she walks on the sidelines to recover, alone. In his tweet, Moceanu wrote: “I was 14 / a tibial stress fracture, left alone without cervical spine examination after this fall. I participated on Olympic soil a few minutes later.

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She then praised Simone Biles’ recent decision to withdraw from most of her events at the Tokyo Olympics in order to focus on her mental health. Biles, who is widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, has since explained that she suffers from “twisties,” a mental block that prevents gymnasts from recognizing where they are in the air. While she qualified for every event in women’s gymnastics at this year’s games, she opted to only compete in the beam final on Tuesday.

“@Simone_Biles’ decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health – ‘a word’ that I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian,” Moceanu wrote. “In our sport, we basically dive in a pool without water. When you lose your ability to find the ground, which seems to be part of @Simone_Bles’ decision, the consequences can be catastrophic. She made the right decision for the team and herself.

For Moceanu, there is a stark difference between how today’s athletes are able to defend their own health and what she experienced as a scared teenager at the 1996 Olympics. Below, she talks candidly to ELLE.com about what really happened after her beam routine and why gymnastics is finally changing for the better.

The video of you hitting your head on the beam is difficult to watch. Do you remember those moments right after you fell?

I was more terrified of being yelled at by [former USA Gymnastics coach and national team coordinator] Martha Karolyi as my own well-being. I saw her out of the corner of my eye when I grabbed the beam. I thought, She is so disappointed with me. She’s going to kill me. I’m a worthless failure in his eyes right now. But I was like, “I’m going to hold on to this beam all my life. I’m not going to touch this floor, no matter what. And then she left. You can see what happened and how lonely I was at the time. I think the video is very revealing of how nobody cared about us at the time.

When we see someone land on their head, we understand why our sport can be so dangerous. And this is where we approach the subject of Simone. When you are not in that right frame of mind, if you are not thinking correctly and feeling unsafe, you have to be careful because things like this can happen very quickly. I have been in communication with Simone, and I know it weighs heavily on her. When you have the “twisties,” as we call them, you suddenly don’t know when to twist, you don’t know where your spatial awareness is. And it is very scary. She’s wearing a lot at the moment. I know everyone’s support is helping her, but it is very heavy on her.

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dominique moceanu at the atlanta olympics

Dominique Moceanu at the Atlanta Games in 1996.

Robert Daemmrich Photography IncGetty Images

It’s also sad to know that you had to go compete right after. What went through your mind at the time? What were the people around you saying?

No one cared how I felt, so I internalized everything. It was all about shifting gears and thinking, You have to go compete in front of the world. Let go of the beam. See if you can medal on the ground. In a way, I have to redeem myself.

My coaches didn’t put me in the right frame of mind. I can guarantee you that if I had had a different mindset this day could have gone very differently. I had no control [after the fall]. It was just like, “Who cares? You have to be a machine and you have to go. it would have been nice to have this choice [of whether to compete or not]. Of course, at the time I thought, i will go no matter what, because I was so conditioned that way. It’s just a shame that there was a lack of compassion, caring and caring for this 14 year old kid.

How did you feel when you saw Simone walk away during these Olympics? If you had seen people like Simone do this when you were younger, do you think you would have made different decisions?

Even though I would have seen someone do that, it was not an option in our generation and in our time. I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that it would not have been allowed. We were not entitled to a voice. But seeing Simone do that now was such a sign of her strength and maturity. Let her say, “I’m not safe. I don’t feel comfortable and have to do what’s right for me and for the team. It was the best decision, and I think it shows that she has a voice in there, and she needs it because it’s her body up there in the air. It’s a good time in history to say, “Hey, that’s changing. The conversation about mental health and physical well-being is changing. Even in the previous Olympics, this was not the case.

simone biles was kissed by coach cecile landi

Simone Biles was kissed by coach Cécile Landi during the Tokyo Games women’s team final.

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Many have also rethought your teammate Kerri Strug’s famous vault at the 1996 Olympics. On her first jump, she fell and injured her ankle, but still made her second jump. Back then it was considered heroic, but now people say she shouldn’t have had to risk her safety. How did you feel then and have your feelings changed over the years?

If she had had the choice, I don’t know what she would have done. We were so conditioned back then. If the coaches had done the math and said to her, “You don’t need to jump, we’ve already won” she might have said, “It relieves the pressure, why do it and hurt me?” Because she didn’t know what was going to happen. [Editor’s note: It was widely believed, because Moceanu fell on both her vaults right before, that Strug had to complete her second vault in order for Team USA to win gold. In reality, the team was far enough ahead that they likely could’ve won without Strug’s second score, though it’s up for interpretation whether the coaches knew this at the time.]

Even then I thought, She leaves in tremendous pain. I don’t know how it’s good for her or for anyone. But we couldn’t articulate things at the time. It’s really hard to say what someone would have done because the choices were never there for us. It would have changed so much in our careers if we had been allowed to have any type of voice without a backlash in the gym. It really makes you think and you look at the past so you can improve the future.

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People still think Kerri had to jump for the team to win. But like you said, it wasn’t.

No my [vault] the marks were sufficient. We would still have won. The tag team competition was delayed on tape, so NBC knew the results and made the story. And that’s great, I understand that people want to make a story out of certain things. But you shouldn’t do it by doing someone else a disservice. You have to be careful with some of these stories because it left an impression on the world that I could have lost it for the team, and it wasn’t. It might not have been the fairy tale they wanted to present, but at the same time, I didn’t lose it, and it made it appear that way. It hurt me for years. I had no reason to be disappointed, but felt like a failure because of the way things were portrayed.

What changes do you hope to see in future Olympic Games so that gymnasts are able to take care of themselves and express themselves?

I think we have an upward trend right now. Being able to have a voice and say what you want in your competitive life is an important thing. Mental and physical safety should always be # 1. We have to continue this at the elite level, down to the lower levels. This will only lead to more positive and healthier results for our athletes.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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