Blind Landing, Simone Biles and believing when athletes say there is a problem

When Simone Biles said something was off and she couldn’t compete, her coach believed her. As the new podcast Blind Landing shows, that wasn’t always the case.

Wondering what to do with yourself now that Olympic gymnastics has ended? Listen to Blind Landing. The five-episode independent podcast hosted by Ari Saperstein, a fellow at This American Life, contains a powerful lesson about listening to, and believing, athletes when they say something is off about the equipment on which they perform, or their bodies and minds that do the performing.

The last several days of Olympic gymnastics competition were filled with the drama surrounding Simone Biles withdrawing from the team and three of her four individual all-around finals for what she and her team said were mental-health reasons. The seemingly mundane act of a woman telling her coach that she did not feel able to continue a competition and her coach listening to her — the act that set the stage for what followed — has been elevated. In gymnastics, it has not always been a guarantee that when an athlete spoke, anyone would hear her.

That is why Blind Landing suddenly seems so significant to understanding the sea change in gymnastics culture in the last two decades, and to appreciating the giant leap forward we took in the last week.

Bling Landing shows how far gymnastics has come, from Elise Ray to Simone Biles

The podcast takes an in-depth look into what happened at individual all-around competition at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. That, you may recall, was the day the gymnasts all crashed their vaults. One after the other. The American Elise Ray had a near-disastrous warmup vault in which she came perilously close to landing on her neck, then sat her competition vault. Svetlana Khorkina of Russia, the favorite for gold, landed on her knees and was out of the running. Sixteen others throughout the first two rotations of the competition: Fall, fall, fall.

Both Ray and Khorkina are interviewed here. They each remember what happened quite clearly, but neither is entirely clear about how she found out that it was the vault setting at fault, not her own fault as a gymnast, or how she heard that she could have another opportunity to vault (Ray took it; Khorkina did not). It seems obvious from listening to them that they had little agency in the situation, or in its resolution.

Ray, who went to Michigan after the 2000 Olympics to compete in the NCAA and later became a college coach, most recently at the University of Washington, sounds relieved to have the opportunity to process her experience. Khorkina, perhaps unsurprisingly, still sounds angry. She was, after all, considered a slam dunk for all-around gold in Sydney, and the vault, she said, ruined her mental game that day. She simply could not pick up and continue on.

Allana Slater of Australia, one of the youngest gymnasts competing that day, had two advantages over the rest of her fallen comrades: One was home court, and having rehearsed on the Olympic equipment in the arena prior to the Games. The other was a coach who listened to her.

Because it was Slater who said the vault was set too low. And it was Slater who held up warmups for the third rotation until someone produced a tape measure. And it was Slater’s coach who said, you know what, you’re right. Something is wrong with the vault.

Other gymnasts, it turns out, also told their coaches something was wrong with the vault. But their coaches ignored them. Dismissed them. Gaslighted them. Maria Olaru of Romania and Great Britain’s Lisa Mason tell their stories about knowing something was wrong with the vault but their coaches refusing to discuss it with them in the fourth and fifth episodes, respectively.

Saperstein interviews Sydney Olympic officials for information on the mood in the arena at the time, one of whom says she had to rewatch the competition to jog her memory about what happened and was horrified. He also interviews a sports psychologist for insight on how athletes, as both Ray and Khorkina testify, could have trouble moving on with a competition after an event like this.

Slater returns later in the show, after telling her story of righting the vault by refusing to leave the landing mat during warmups. She acknowledges that she had a special relationship with her coach, and that it was unusual for the time.

A surprising revelation was that none of these athletes besides Khorkina had spoken about the all-around competition in Sydney or the vault that crushed their dreams for years. Olaru had never said that she had told her coach, Octavian Belu, about a too-low vault setting during podium training before the competition; she says that because her book about her career was poorly received in Romania, tainting her reputation, she felt no one would believe her.

Saperstein acknowledges at the outset of the series that he knew little about gymnastics, but pursued the story because it is a good story. He’s right. He had help with the gymnastics part from producer Jessica Taylor Price, a gymnastics writer for a variety of publications, who had been working on her own story about the Sydney vault debacle when she connected with and agreed to collaborate with Saperstein. Myka Kielbon and Christian Green, both seasoned radio producers, also helped produce Blind Landing.

When Simone Biles knew something was wrong with her mind-body connection after her first vault in the team final competition in Tokyo, she told her coach, Cecile Landi, that she couldn’t keep going. Landi listened to her, and stood by as Biles withdrew. What seems like a mundane athlete-coach interaction, albeit one on the largest stage in the sport, was in fact a watershed moment, as I realized after listening to Blind Landing.

In 21 years, we went from an entirely preventable equipment malfunction that ruined athletes’ mental games and tarnished an entire Olympics’ worth of gymnastics competition to a star athlete expected to win multiple gold medals saying no, I won’t go on, and that being all right. The earth kept revolving around the sun, the competition proceeded without Biles, her teammates won medals with her cheering from the stands. Careers were made, and Biles’ career will keep going in some form or another. We’ve come a long way, and Blind Landing is proof of that.