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July 30, 2021

Even the “Greatest of All Time” is Human.

A simple announcement by an extraordinary person rocked, not only the Olympic world but the planet as well.

Simone Biles made a potentially life-saving decision to step back from competing in the Tokyo Olympics.

A few days earlier, I had a premonition, as I watched her fly through the air with what seemed to be superhuman agility, that she was going to get injured. Broken bones, torn ligaments are what I envisioned. Certainly I wouldn’t have wished it on her, but I couldn’t erase the image from my mind.

That’s why her announcement didn’t surprise me and came as a relief. Not for one instant, did I think she wimped out or let anyone down. Not her team or coaches, not her family and friends, not her fans worldwide, and certainly not her country.

USA Gymnastics gave their thumbs up, “We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being,” the statement read. “Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many.”

She is a role model of resilience, of survivorship (she was one of the sexual abuse victims of Dr. Larry Nasser who was the team doctor and who is now serving time for his horrific acts toward those who were supposed to have been able to trust him—at least 500 to date), of getting back up and keeping on keepin’ on, of inspiring excellence by her example of team work and sportswomanship. It would come as no surprise that this trauma would eventually catch up with her, since it is insidious and can pounce without warning.

The long-term impact of sexual abuse may include depression, addiction, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders, and suicidality. Add to that, the intense pressure of life in the spotlight, as well as being in a high impact sport, and you have a recipe for distaster.

Referred to as the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), Biles has paid the price for expectations that are as lofty as the heights to which she flies, twists and contorts her body. Some of her moves are scored at a lower rate since they seemed unatainable for other gymnasts. She was being penalized for being as adept as she is. This woman who earned, through her skill four Olympic gold medals and 25 world medals, is after all, fully human.

When she missed a twist and turn (Yurchenko with 2.5 twists), she knew something was off. In the gymnastics world, she experienced what is called “the twisties”  The way I have seen it described is that in mid-move, the body loses its place in space. Struggling to reclaim balance can cause injury. I have a friend who is a gymnast and high diver who talks about the idea of “unconscious competence,” whereby an athlete’s body gets so accustomed to certain moves that they develop muscle memory.

Seems like when that occurred, she knew her body well enough to determine that it was a good idea to put the brakes on the routine and the rest of the Olympics to focus on what mattered most, her well-being—mental-health being an essential component. She also knew that her teammates were more than capable of carrying on with her cheering from the sidelines. That they did, netting silver. It takes a true team player to know that she need not be in the spotlight at all times. That gave her teammates room to shine as well.

“I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s age, but I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I’m also not having as much fun, and I know that this Olympic Games I wanted to do it for myself, and I was still doing it for other people, so that just hurts my heart badly, that doing what I love has been taken away.”

Those who criticized her for not fighting on, for quitting in the face of her doubts, are clearly not aware of what goes into being a stellar athlete. Added to the mix is that as a woman of color, she carries another burden.

You know the saying that some people need to work twice as hard to be considered half as good? Her talent, determination, and skill are obvious. I read that she competed at one point with broken toes and another with kidney stones. Having had the second, I can vouch for how painful they are. I could barely walk let alone vault through the air.

Looking after one’s mental health is as a crucial as minding one’s physical health. The pushback she has gotten speaks to the stigmatization of mental health issues. This “tough it out at all costs” mentally is part of what leads to depression and anxiety.

I have been following social media coverage and cringed at the people who get vicarious gratification out of watching their team” win, as if it is a reflection of them. Because they cheer on Team USA, somehow it diminshes their value because she said no to continuing.

In reality, saying yes to herself, doesn’t mean she is weak or a quitter. It does no one any good if she martyrs herself as far too many athletes have done who perform with injuries. One of her critics is noted elite gymnast (not) Piers Morgan who verbally vomited, “You can either listen to snowflake Twitter, @Simone_Biles – or listen to me. You’re a great champion, & great champions get back on their feet when they get knocked down. So, re-engage in these Games, win Gold, & inspire with the power of resilience not resignation.”

 

On a friend’s Facebook page, I read a comment being harshly critical of Biles, “Well, She Did Quit. She let Her Team Down because Her Ego was Bigger. She was scared to Lose. That is not a Winner and a horrible Example for Black People and Our Youth. You Never Quit You Never Surrender. You Fight and Let the Cards Fall Where They Land.”

My response: “This is not like other sports. If she second guesses herself while in mid air, it could cause life threatening injuries. I imagine that this was not a decision she made lightly. And to anyone who is an arm chair critic, have you ever done what she does?”

When I was a kid (ages 11-18), I was a competitive swimmer. I loved the sport. I loved being on a team. I joined after our family doc recommended it to strenghten my lungs since I had been diagnosed with asthma. That it did. I swam freestyle and butterfly (100 meter and relays) with the shoe box filled with ribbons to show for it.

I had Olympic dreams and aspirations, but not Olympic discipline. I wasn’t willing to have my life revolve around the pool. When I aged out, I coached for three summers and encouraged other swimmers to give the sport their best, regardless of whether they won a race, or simply made it to the other end of the pool.

I admire the energy athletes invest in their sport. I don’t, for one second, believe that Biles or any other athlete in her situation is a loser or quitter. She is not a machine. She is a human being with needs like those of any audience member who gets a vicarious thrill from her performance.

None of us has any clue what she was feeling at the moment she made the monumental decision.

Do you feel you are in a place to criticize her? If so, please read this.

~

 

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