“The amount of pressure she has on her shoulders,” Liukin said before Biles attempted her vault, in comments that would air on NBC’s tape-delayed broadcast in prime time. “Not just her teammates but the entire nation — but not just the nation but the entire world — is expecting for her to be the best just like she always is. And that’s a lot.”
She added: “Nobody knows what it feels like except for Simone Biles.”
Liukin, a gold medal-winning gymnast for Team USA, has been perhaps the person most responsible for explaining to Americans what Biles was experiencing in Tokyo. She has been a fixture on NBC, discussing everything from the “twisties” — gymnastics’ (much more dangerous) version of the yips — to Biles’s status in the competition.
“I definitely feel like I want to explain to the rest of the world what people don’t understand,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday from Tokyo. “If you’re a gymnast, if you say the word ‘twisties,’ you are like, ‘Oh, gosh.’ ”
Ahead of that vault, Liukin had followed Biles’s Instagram posts and then saw worrying signs in Biles’s practice routine. “There was something in her eyes,” Liukin said. “I’ve known her since she was 14. There was a look I had never seen. It was fear and nerves and uncertainty."
Liukin’s call struck a far different tone than the broadcast that aired live on Peacock. During the preamble to Biles’s vault, the broadcast only hyped her up: “It doesn’t matter what vault she does, it’s a showstopper. It’s must-see TV.”
On prime time the next night, Liukin spoke with host Mike Tirico about the twisties — which she knows firsthand — and how difficult it would have been for Biles to compete. She also told Tirico what many fans — and no doubt NBC executives — wanted to hear: that Biles was training again with the possibility that she might return to the Games. Liukin also relayed a message direct from Biles: She had withdrawn to save her teammates.
“Simone said to me, ‘I really want everyone to know I wasn’t being selfish,’ ” Liukin said. “ ‘I wasn’t there mentally and didn’t feel safe enough to do the other events. If I got hurt, the score will be far less, and Team USA can still win a medal.’ I think a lot of people didn’t see it that way, and she wanted me to get that out there, and I think that was important for people to understand.”
Biles returned to competition Tuesday, winning a bronze medal in balance beam. NBC has been battling flagging TV viewership for these Olympics and sought to maximize the prime-time audience for Biles, which angered some gymnastics fans. A replay of the event was not available, as other events have been, on Peacock until after NBC’s prime-time presentation.
To set up Biles’s return, the network aired a package set to Taylor Swift’s “This Is Me Trying” that included a voice-over: “What do we want from our heroes? What do we need? What happens when they surprise us? When you have the attention of the world, everything you do takes on a bigger meaning. It can be a heavy burden.”
Tirico also interviewed Biles on Tuesday night. In the conversation, she said that she was not medically cleared to return to action after her vault.
The presentation Tuesday mirrored the way the network has pivoted to cover Biles’s withdrawal and away from the traditional feel-good stories of triumph to more complicated conversations about pressure and mental health. Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez, former teammates of Biles, appeared on the “Today” show to talk about Biles’s struggles and some of their own, too. In prime time one night, former swimmer Michael Phelps and Tirico had an extended conversation about Phelps’s battles with his mental health.
“For Simone to say her seventh Olympic medal, a bronze, is the most meaningful to her, that’s all you have to know,” Liukin said. “She’s inspiring so many generations to come and the importance of understanding and owning and acknowledging that fulfilling other people’s expectations won’t define you.”
While there has been plenty of discussion of pressure and mental health as macro issues, there has been less direct conversation — on NBC and elsewhere — about what Biles has been through as an American gymnast, overcoming the abuse of Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics’ handling of the scandal. Before the Olympics, Biles said she was competing, but “I am not representing USA Gymnastics.” (Tirico and Biles did refer to issues in gymnastics obliquely in their conversation.)
Asked if those issues needed to be part of any conversation about her mental health, Liukin said: “I think that’s for Simone to talk about. I think what she’s done set the standard for speaking up for yourself and safety comes first. I think everything else is for her to decide, and I’ll leave it at that.”