The night before Simone Biles pulled out of the women's gymnastics team finals, our daughter was with us. She had got back to the city late from a summer evening art event with friends at Storm King Center upstate and didn't feel like schlepping to Brooklyn. We were watching the men's gymnastics team finals, and talking about the Russian gymnast who'd had surgery to repair his Achilles just three months before. His doctors had insisted he take six months before reentering competition, but there he was at the Olympics, with his still healing ankle raised on every landing, usually throwing him off balance.
My husband and I recalled the year U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug did a final vault with a broken ankle, supposedly to secure gold for her team, although it later emerged that her career-ending vault was not needed, the U.S. would have won gold anyway. But in the heat of competition, team coach Bela Karolyi urged her to do that one last vault, knowing she was badly injured, knowing she could have landed catastrophically on her back or neck. We didn't think about all that back in 1996, though. Back then, we saw Kerri Strug's perilous but ultimately successful second vault as heroic. We pushed down the queasy feeling that the U.S. coaches should not have let her vault, even if she was willing. Instead they put their medal dreams ahead of the well-being of an athlete in their care.
Twenty-five years later, I pulled up a YouTube video to show our daughter Kerri Strug's historic vault. But this time, seeing the look of abject terror on the young gymnast's face as she prepared to do what everything in her being was telling her not to, I was horrified. What the fuck? Why on earth did we cheer?!
The culture of gymnastics back then was for young women athletes to have no voice, and this was true all the way up until 2016 when team doctor Larry Nasser was convicted of sexually violating literally hundreds of U.S. gymnasts—including Simone Biles and some of her gold-medal winning 2016 Olympic teammates. They were also browbeaten and emotionally abused, told to suck it up and perform through injuries, even though any flip or twist could potentially end badly.
I recently watched the documentary Golden, about five U.S. women gymnasts including Sunisa Lee and Mykayla Skinner, and their journey to a possible berth on the 2020-2021 Olympics team. At one point Mykayla Skinner recalls one of her college teammates doing a vault, landing on her neck, and dying. I have long argued that gymnastics, especially women's gymnastics, is the most dangerous sport there is. And yet when Kerri Strug was injured back in the 1996 Olympics, a brainwashed nation gave her incredibly irresponsible and ruthless coach a pass—the same coach, not incidentally, who with his wife Marta facilitated the sexual abuse of hundreds teenage gymnasts by a predatory team doctor who was allowed to examine the girls alone in their hotel rooms at international meets or in their dorm rooms at the Karolyi's team training center in the remote woods of Texas.
In her book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, author Joan Ryan wrote about the physical, emotional, and psychological domination of U.S. women gymnasts prior to the Larry Nasser revelations. “There is no other sport in which this could have happened but gymnastics,” Joan Ryan said. “These girls are groomed from an incredibly young age to deny their own experience. Your knee hurts? You’re being lazy. You’re hungry? No, you’re fat and greedy. They are trained to doubt their own feelings, and that’s why this could happen to over 150 of them.” And that's 150 gymnasts who told us what happened. We know for a fact that many others chose to remain silent.
Which brings me to Simone Biles withdrawing from the team competition on Tuesday morning. She had been struggling with what gymnasts call "the twisties"—losing air awareness—ever since the team trials. She hoped it would pass. But when she went out on Tuesday morning and did her first vault, and suddenly didn't know where she was in the air, she knew she was in trouble. She managed to land without injuring herself, but she knew she was done. As someone said afterward, if you're in the wrong headspace in basketball, you miss shots. If you're in the wrong headspace in a 100 meter event, you lose the race. In gymnastics, especially with the high degree of difficultly twists and flips that Simone Biles does, if you're in the wrong headspace, if all your senses aren't firing optimally, if your air awareness suddenly goes missing, you could be paralyzed, or worse, lose your life.
Once you understand this, you grasp that Simone's decision to pull out of the event was not selfish, was not cowardly, was above all not casual. She did the best thing for her team, because if she had been injured in competition, it would have cost them not only the medal, but also rocked them in such a way that perhaps it would have undermined their own ability to compete. She knew the talent in the U.S. team was deep, and that she could trust her teammates to carry the baton. It was a plot twist no one had expected, but her coaches understood, her teammates understood. Most important, Simone Biles used her voice powerfully and resolutely to protect herself despite more than a decade of being trained to ignore it, and certainly knowing that certain factions would declare her gutless, not mentally tough, a quitter who let her team down.
Having followed Simone Biles' gymnastics career closely from the start, I felt incredibly sad at the news that she would not compete. But I respected her decision, applauded it. And her teammates stepped up spectacularly, winning silver. Jordan Chiles had not even warmed up on parallel bars, yet she turned in an almost impeccable routine. And Suni Lee was steady as they come throughout. But at the team press conference afterward, Simone was breezy, said she wasn't having fun anymore, and I wished mightily that someone had helped her get her messaging together before she talked to the media. She couldn't yet explain that when she had vaulted and lost her place mid air, she had been in fear of her life.
Other veteran Olympic gymnasts, including Nastia Liukin, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Dominique Dawes, and yes, Kerri Strug, rushed to help everyone understand exactly what had happened on that vault, and how much they admired Simone being able to speak her truth, to trust her own instincts in that moment, despite the glare of the world upon her. I was heartened and thrilled two days later, when Simone's teammate Sunisa Lee won gold in the All Around competition, and all I could think was, Simone's courage in stepping back when she knew she needed to made a space for Suni Lee to shine.
This morning on her Instagram story, Simone is taking questions from followers, and explaining herself far better than she was able to immediately after the team final. Reading her responses, I found myself finally exhaling on her behalf, and trusting that she would be okay.
My daughter got there before me. After the press conference on Tuesday, she had texted me: “Simone is so not ashamed of the decision she made, which makes me trust her even more for making it. I trust that she didn't make it rashly." I'm grateful that her generation more easily understands the need to care for one's mental and physical well being. The rest of the world (except for certain factions, we all know who they are) will eventually come around. May we all finally know that Simone Biles is what a true hero looks like.