This is Simone Biles' "secret gym" in Tokyo 1:58

(CNN) -- After documenting the training practices, now seen as abusive, of elite gymnastics in her 1995 book "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes," sports journalist and author Joan Ryan found herself unable to see the sport.

"Once you know what's going on, you can't ignore it," Ryan told CNN Sport. "So you can't ignore it."

But nearly 30 years later and with the 2024 Olympics on the horizon, Ryan is "ready after not wanting to watch gymnastics for a long, long time." Simone Biles, at least in part, is the reason she feels this way.

Two years ago, Biles stunned fans around the world when she withdrew from five event finals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. He eventually returned to win bronze on balance beam: his 32nd medal between Olympics and World Championships. Then he disappeared from competitive gymnastics.

Now, the seven-time Olympic medalist is back: She is scheduled to compete at the US Classic in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, this Saturday. This time, Biles, 26, will appear not only as the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history, but also as a role model in efforts to draw attention to athletes' mental health.


"We've never seen an athlete like Simone Biles," Ryan said. "For her to walk away because of gymnastics, because of what she went through, because of the culture in her sport, highlights what this sport is all about."

"Here's this amazing woman who looked like she could do anything: a superhero. And yet, that sport was corrosive and abusive enough that she really had to walk away for her own mental health," Ryan added.

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Biles, pictured, in action during the balance beam final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (Credit: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Simone Biles' retirement and criticism

Biles opted not to participate in the team final in Tokyo while suffering from "sprains," a mental block that causes gymnasts to lose track of their position in the air. USA Gymnastics later announced that it had pulled out of the all-around individual final, citing the need to prioritize his mental health, as well as the vault, floor and uneven bars finals.

"Any time you find yourself in a very stressful situation, you freak out a little bit," Biles told reporters at the time. "I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being."

Biles was replaced in the all-around final by Jade Carey, who had finished ninth in the qualifying round. Carey, now a junior at Oregon State University, viewed Biles' decision with admiration.

"When Simone withdrew from the team final at the Olympics, I saw sheer strength," Carey told CNN Sport in an email. "It's hard to step back and really take care of yourself in our sport and that's what he showed the world."

Biles again won bronze on the balance beam, her 32nd medal between the Olympics and World Championships. Her 19 World Championship gold medals constitute the most of any gymnast in history.

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Biles competes in the balance beam final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

For fans accustomed to seeing Biles dominate competitions with ease, her departure in 2021 was an unexpected move. He had dazzled crowds at the 2016 Rio Olympics, winning five medals, including four golds. Many expected him to do the same, or even better, in Tokyo. But for some more familiar with the intense physical and psychological demands of sport, Biles' decision to opt out of competition was more unprecedented than surprising.

"(Biles' departure) was shocking because no one else in gymnastics had stood up and said, 'Enough. Right now, this is enough and I need to take care of myself no matter what everyone wants from me on the biggest stage on the planet,'" Ryan said.

Ryan's book criticized the U.S. gymnastics team, U.S. Gymnastics — formerly known as the USA Gymnastics Federation — for turning a blind eye to abusive workouts during the 1980s and 1990s and prioritizing success over health, ignoring the devastating consequences: eating disorders, depression and other mental health problems. as well as debilitating and sometimes fatal injuries.

"I just stepped back and said, 'Good for you, girl,'" Ryan said of Biles' retirement. "This is exactly what you should be doing, taking care of yourself and not just doing what everyone wants you to do."

Biles faced a harsh backlash for her decision on social media, where some users argued that her retirement was the product of a moment of weakness or abandonment of her team. Others, like Ryan, saw it as a testament to how the demands of elite gymnastics can wear down even the most talented people.

Biles dazzled the crowd at the 2016 Rio Olympics, winning five medals, including four golds. (Credit: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

The accusations against Larry Nassar and the abuses of US Gymnastics

At the time of the Tokyo Olympics, Biles was preparing to testify at a U.S. Senate hearing about the FBI's alleged mishandling of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse investigation. More than 150 athletes, including Biles, said the former U.S. gymnastics team doctor sexually abused them under the guise of providing medical treatment. The allegations against Nassar were first filed in July 2015, but no arrests were made until December 2016.

Before the Senate Judiciary Committee in August 2021, Biles criticized "an entire system that allowed and perpetuated her abuse," including USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. He later told New York magazine that he "should have resigned long before Tokyo, when Larry Nassar was in the media for two years."

He reinforced what Ryan had observed through interviews with nearly 100 athletes, coaches, sports psychologists and other experts while writing his book: that "the whole structure of gymnastics was really focused on not worrying at all about what happens to these girls."

"The gold medal hanging at the end of his career, or during his career... and they needed to get there without restrictions," Ryan said.

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American gymnasts from left to right, Simone Biles, Maroney McKayla, Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols, arrive to testify during a Senate Judiciary hearing on the Inspector General's report on the FBI's handling of Larry Nassar's investigation on Capitol Hill, September 15, 2021, in Washington. (Credit: Saul Loeb/AP)

Speaking to CNN's Jake Tapper about Biles' decision in 2021, former teammate and three-time Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman also criticized USA Gymnastics for not properly supporting female athletes.

"USA Gymnastics has been an absolute disaster for years and sadly hasn't changed enough to believe in a safer future," Raisman said. "I think this really shows the lack of leadership of USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee."

However, there is hope that USA Gymnastics will have a brighter future. A new mission statement and organizational values and an athletes' bill of rights were adopted at the end of 2020. More than two-thirds of the organization's staff joined in 2018 or later.

"Since that time, our top priority has been to transform our culture into one that prioritizes the health and well-being of athletes in all of our decisions, policies and actions," Jill Geer, a spokeswoman for USA Gymnastics, told CNN Sport via email. "There's no question that the previous culture of sport was harmful to a lot of people."

"It is incredibly gratifying to see athletes like Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and Suni Lee excited and happy to return to the sport," Geer wrote. "That elite gymnastics is a sport they want to return to reinforces that USA Gymnastics has been on the right track with our cultural transformation. It's something we continue to work on every day."

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In October 2022, USA Gymnastics announced a new policy that allows all National Team members to receive up to eight mental health care visits per year, to receive reimbursement of up to $125 per visit from USA Gymnastics.

The policy has since been revised, according to Geer, and USA Gymnastics will now cover more than eight mental health care visits per year for National Team athletes "if there is a projected surplus of funding for the year."

The organization had previously implemented a mental health emergency action plan for all National Team camps and competitions, as well as providing an on-site "psychological service provider" at "almost all" National Artistic Gymnastics Team camps.

The Return of Biles

As for the return of Biles, and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Douglas, Ryan is optimistic that it's proof of positive change within elite gymnastics, including a move away from the idea that young, often preteen, teens are the ideal age for competitive gymnastics. and that those entering adulthood are nearing retirement.

"It's going to show that you don't need to be 14, that you can be the best in the world at 27," Ryan said. "That's huge, right? That you can stay in this sport and stay healthy in this sport, because you can't compete at 27 unless you've taken care of yourself."

"I just can't imagine there's still rot at the core of USA Gymnastics," Ryan added. "Those women are not going to let that happen."

Fans and other athletes are excited to witness the great gymnast in action this Saturday. Biles topped the entire field at the U.S. Women's National Team camp in July, winning the event with a score of 57.650.

"Simone's return is very exciting, and I'm looking forward to getting back on the race track and seeing where this journey takes her," Carey wrote via email.

Less than a year before the opening ceremony of Paris 2024, what's next for the most decorated American gymnast in history?

Simone Biles