I am a casual fan of gymnastics. Typically I only watch it every four years. My earliest memory of gymnastics is crushing out on Dominique Dawes. Dominique set the standard for the sport in my era, earning four medals during her career (one gold and three bronze). She was ice cold too.
Then came Gabby Douglas. In 2016, Douglas set gymnastics on fire, winning three gold medals in a single Olympic season. Douglas was the first African American to become the Olympic individual all-around champion, and the first U.S. gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. She was also the 2016 AT&T Cup all-around champion. Gabby owned London (but don’t just take my word for it).
Enter Simone Biles.
Earth has a plethora of mysteries. The idea of some things are incomprehensible. Simone is a guardian of this realm. While other gymnastics greats remain earth-bound, Simone regularly leaves orbit. If you have ever seen a UFO, it was possibly Simone practicing.
The scariest person in the world of gymnastics is 4’8”. In the words of Aubrey Graham, “might look light, but we heavy though.” Simone is motherf***ing GIANT. She is the Shaquille of her sport, the most dominant ever. Simone will flip on a balance beam and break your will with the grace of a bee collecting nectar from a flower. She is operating in 4K; the rest of us are still the wide back TV with the antenna.
In a sport full of world-class athletes, the G.O.A.T. is in a galaxy of her own. Simone has a graveyard of inexplicable, never-before-seen tricks under her belt. There are even a few named after her. In a world of professional athletes, Simone is widely regarded as the G.O.A.T by her contemporaries (which rarely happens if the person is still competing).
On July 28th, 2021, in the midst of the summer Olympics, Simone announced her withdrawal from the competition—a revelation that sent shockwaves throughout the competition. The United States (largely presumed to be the Thanos to the 2021 Olympics’ MCU) would’ve surely wiped out the rest of the world. Initially, there was speculation of injury, but Simone quickly came out to refute these claims. Setting the record straight, she stated:
No injury, thankfully. And that’s why I took a step back because I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured. So I thought it was best if these girls took over and did the rest of the job; which they absolutely did, they’re Olympic silver medalists now. And they should be really proud of themselves for how well they did last-minute, having to adjust. (Simone Biles, via NPR)
Simone went on to mention,
“today has been really stressful. We had a workout this morning, it went OK. And then just that five-and-a-half-hour wait or something, I was just like shaking, could barely nap. I’ve just never felt like this going into a competition before. And I tried to go out here and have fun. Warmup in the back went a little bit better. But then once I came out here, I was like no, mental’s not there, so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.”
To be honest, my initial response to Simone’s statement was, “I’m glad she’s not injured, but how is her mental gone?” Simone has spoiled us. From the outside looking in, it appears that she could do this in her sleep; but that kind of logic is dangerous. Oftentimes we fall into this trap of referring to athletes as if they are machines, and in the process, forget they are human—which they didn’t ask for.
Minimizing a person’s feelings and projecting yours on them should be a crime.
Shortly after hearing Simone’s statement, I read about “twisties.” By definition, twisties are, “a phenomenon when an athlete suddenly loses their sense of where their body is in space.” This led me down a gymnastics rabbit hole. Olympic announcer Zerlina Maxwell described it this way: “Gymnastics isn’t basketball. If you’re off your head game, you don’t brick. You die.” Thinking about it in those terms, I can certainly understand how “twisties” gave Simone pause.
From there, I learned the story of Kerri Strug. The ‘96 Olympics in Atlanta were Strug’s coming-out party. Strug won a gold medal, but the cost was heavy. The Americans were down on the scorecards to the Russians. Strug (a part of the aptly named “Magnificent 7”) was next up in the event. On her first attempt, she under-rotated the landing, causing her to fall and injure her ankle.
Kerri asked her coaches, “do I need to go again? Is this necessary?” Her coaches pressured her into performing on an injured ankle, and she completed the second vault basically on one leg, hopping up and down after coming back to earth. Only after competing injured did Kerri learn that she hadn’t needed to; the Americans were already up on the scorecard. That was Kerri’s last Olympics.
I found there were a ton of “Kerri Strug” stories; countless tales of athletes being pushed beyond their physical limits to check boxes for a coach; used up in search of a medal and thrown out when no longer useful. True enough, all of these athletes had the option to say, “No”—but who the hell is aware that they can say no when dreams are on the line?
Simone was—Simone IS—the anomaly. When Lil Wayne asked, “what’s a goon to a goblin,” he was talking about Simone Biles. A goon is a small-time career criminal. A goon has no power and is told what steps to take. A goblin, meanwhile, is menacing. It is unrelenting, unbelievably powerful, and in Simone’s case, the Queenpin of Olympic medals.
With the weight of the entire country on her shoulders, Simone said, “No.” She chose her mental health and well-being over medaling. I have no clue how much “cojones” it took for her to listen to herself—maybe the most difficult decision of her career. That strength is the difference between Simone and the rest of us. I too have been in compromising positions, where I knew better but didn’t necessarily do better; and none of my decisions were under bright Olympic lights, but rather dimly lit New Orleans streets lights.
After Simone dropped out of four events, I started to read the online comments (bad decisions on my part): people who have never accomplished anything calling Simone a quitter. A QUITTER?!! Simone F****** Biles?!! You have to be kidding. If you’re familiar with Simone Biles’ beginnings, you’d know that she won at life long ago; the rest of this is lagniappe.
It’s impossible to ignore the inherent sexism and racism baked into these criticisms.
The ire towards her is because she’s a black woman, at her pinnacle controlling her narrative. Many of Simone’s male contemporaries have departed from sports earlier than anticipated. A lot of the comments about Biles derived from ignorance. Maybe the clearest example of this comes from Novak Djokovic.
When asked about Biles’ mental health, tennis star Djokovic said, “Pressure is a privilege, my friend…if you are aiming to be at the top of the game, you better start learning how to deal with pressure.”A couple days later, while losing in a bronze medal match, Djokovic had a legendary temper tantrum. He broke his racquet on the ground and threw it in the crowd. Well isn’t this some pot-calling-the-kettle-black-type s***? Novak, you gotta take your own advice, my friend.
Tennis is a great example of a sport where the coverage of sexism is not so covert. For years many white male tennis players have had loud outbursts. The media has lauded them for their passion. John McEnroe is the poster child for the emotional tennis star, known for his “impassioned” flare-ups against umpires during matches. Could you imagine the headlines if the Williams sisters or Naomi Osaka pulled this stunt (shout out Naomi Osaka, we love you)?
Michael Jordan quit his sport at his zenith. Nobody called him a quitter. It was widely accepted Mike’s dad passed and he wanted to do something else. Barry Sanders called it quits because his franchise could not get over the hump. Calvin Johnson, nicknamed Megatron, retired in his prime at the age of 30. He would later explain, during his hall-of-fame speech, that his body was breaking down due to constant injury (it didn’t help that his team was trash). Andrew Luck admitted the hits took a toll on his body; people are still waiting on his comeback.
Ironically, the same country Simone wins medals and collects souls of the gymnast she beats now calls her a quitter; when in fact, this country is the one that let Simone down. Larry Nassar, the disgraced former Team USA physician, was charged with and found guilty of sexually assaulting ten of the gymnasts he treated; and while he will spend the rest of his life in prison, those convictions represent a minuscule fraction of the reported number of victims, Simone Biles among them.
Imagine having to represent a place where because of your talent, you were put in a vulnerable position to be sexually assaulted. Simone was abused by her country, and still goes out and puts America on top. Never in your life question Simone Biles.
There is a taboo in America surrounding mental health. We often stigmatize people who speak up about mental health as weak. That’s totally the opposite: to admit something isn’t quite right with yourself, to acknowledge that your mental state isn’t where you want it to be is the strongest thing you can do. Stepping away and coming back better is what champions do.
Simone returned to competition and incredibly claimed a bronze medal, after missing four events. For her last trick, Simone made the earth shift, even while not being at the peak of her power. That’s just what the G.O.A.T. does. Something light. Nothing major.