Gymnast Simone Biles helped give Sunisa Lee a boost after a jumping accident

FORT WORTH – Just as Sunisa Lee stormed to the locker, her coach could tell something was wrong. He noticed a slight stumble that resulted in Lee’s feet landing a little too far back on the springboard. And in a sport characterized by close margins and split-second decisions, Jess Graba hoped his star pupil would follow her instincts forged by years of training and find a way to land safely.

Lee was supposed to push off the vault with her hands and perform two spins as she flew through the air. But due to the early mishap, the double twist didn’t go as planned. Lee instead performed just a twist and a half and then “I just put it against my butt,” she said.

Simone Biles saw what happened during Lee’s first performance of the night and immediately identified with it. Lee went to an arena tunnel to calm down and figure out her next steps. Biles joined her.

“I’ve been in her shoes,” Biles said. ‘I did exactly that. And I know how traumatizing it is, especially on a big stage like this.”

Biles is of course referring to her own jump that went wrong during the team final at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Biles blamed it on a mental block known as “the twisties,” a disorienting sensation that makes gymnasts feel lost in the air. Biles had attempted 2½ turns before stopping in mid-air and completing only 1½. Lee’s problems Sunday night at the national championships weren’t quite the same. Due to the funky approach to the springboard, Lee described it as a “serendipitous, weird incident.” Yet the outcome was eerily familiar.

“I just knew she needed some encouragement and someone to trust her gymnastics and believe in her,” Biles said.

The two Olympians had a brief conversation. Biles asked if Lee had gotten lost and encouraged her not to think too much about her skills. (When Lee later explained what happened, she noted the accident while running and said, “I didn’t know where I was (in the air), but I knew exactly where I was, if that makes sense.”)

Lee recalled that Biles “checked to see if I was mentally okay before I went out, and she said if I got lost on my dismount to just let it happen.” Lee then asked Biles to stand nearby while she performed at bars, her next event.

The timing worked out well. Lee was second on beam, while Biles was last on floor in the second rotation. So Biles went to the other side of the arena to cheer on Lee as she went through her routine for her signature event. Lee was fantastic. She soared through the air on four consecutive release elements, each with the exquisite execution she is known for, and she closed the routine with a full-twisting double tuck dismount.

“I don’t think I could have done it without her,” Lee said.

Lee earned a score of 14.500 and still has room to improve her difficulty ahead of the Olympic Trials. After the jump, she simply needed a confidence boost, citing Biles, her coaches and the medical staff as the people who helped her get out of the rut.

Lee is the reigning Olympic all-around champion, but that doesn’t make her invincible. She has had a rough year this past year due to kidney-related health issues. This competition marked her first appearance in all four apparatus at the elite level since the Tokyo Games three years ago. So when her jump went wrong during the first rotation – a one-point deduction for the fall in addition to the mental setback – she benefited from some reassurance.

“Normally I can just watch and make sure the music is working and stuff like that, which is the most stressful part of the day,” Graba said. “But on days like today you actually have to coach. You have to know your athlete. They have to trust you. And you better be right. Then they will trust you next time.”

Lee knows that beam and beam are the most crucial events in her quest to make it to a second Olympic Games. That’s where she can help the U.S. team the most. So after Lee rallied on beam with an assist from Biles, she needed another strong performance on beam.

In the next rotation, Lee sailed through her beam routine like a veteran. Her precision elevates her performance, and the 14.900 she earned Sunday was the best beam score in the competition. (Biles had the highest two-day combined score to win the apparatus title, while Lee took home the silver medal.) Each successful bars and beam routine brings Lee a little closer to a spot on the Paris Olympic team.

After that excellent beaming routine, Graba told Lee, “That’s who you are.”

Graba said he was never overly nervous. He knew Lee just needed to calm down after the jump. Lee still doubts himself sometimes. But despite her recent health problems, limited preparation and the accident on vault, she finished fourth in the all-around, with the early mistake making her rebound even more impressive.

“Everything can be stacked against you,” Graba said. “And I’ll always put my money on her.”

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