Let’s talk Simone Biles But first, let’s talk about two gymnasts we don’t know the names of: Elena Mukhina and Julissa Gomez
Elena Mukhina, a 20-year-old Soviet gymnast, broke her neck right before the 1980 Olympics when her coach pushed her to practice her balance beam routine although her broken leg hadn’t yet healed. Doing the now-banned Thomas salto move, she landed on her chin, and she was permanently paralyzed. She died from quadriplegia complications at the age of 46.
Julissa Gomez, a 15-year-old American rising star, a few months before the 1988 Olympics, was having a shaky time on the vault lately. Her coaches insisted she work through her difficulty with a particularly hard vault routine although some of her teammates later said it was clear it wasn’t safe for her to practice that day. Her foot slipped on the springboard and she ended up paralyzed from the neck down, only to later suffer severe brain damage, which put her into a coma. Her family surrounded her with care and love until she died in 1991.
Let’s talk about what it means to be unable to speak up, or to speak up but to be bullied into doing what you know isn’t right for you at the time. Dominique Moceanu, another American gymnast, who suffered a potentially devastating injury in 1996, tweeted in response to applaud Biles’ decision that she and her teammates never felt they had any say in their health.
Let’s think about how athletes are often heroized for working through the pain, competing with broken limbs or sprained joints, pushing themselves despite the likeliness of permanent injuries (and I can’t help thinking here about all the football and soccer players with brain injuries for life).
Let’s also talk about the unimaginable pressure not just of representing a country and the Olympics in a pandemic while carrying the weight of being deemed the greatest gymnast of all time, but also what it means to be a survivor. Matthew Norlander wrote for CBS sports that Biles “….has gone on record and said, sadly, that one of her motivating factors to continue competing was her celebrity and influence on USA Gymnastics. Had she opted to retire prior to these Olympics, Biles felt like USA Gymnastics would not be, as an organization, held as accountable as it should be for its disgraces against dozens of former gymnasts who were abused by former USA Gymnastics trainer Larry Nassar. Biles is the only active gymnast in USA Gymnastics who doubles as a survivor from the Nassar era, and she carries this with her every day she practices, competes, exists as a member of Team USA.” Biles was sexually assaulted by Nassar, a doctor who was supposed to be caring for her health and not damaging it, along with 367 other young women. She wrote in social media how it continually broke her heart to have to return to the same Olympics training facility where she was abused.
Let’s talk about growing up hungry and in the foster care system after being removed from a mother who fed the cat over her four children and how those children clung to each other to survive. Then, when Biles was six, she and her sister were adopted by her grandparents, who she came to call Mom and Dad, but her other sibs went to other family in Ohio. Biles started gymnastics that year and made her world debut in 2013 at age 16.
Let’s talk about love in action for your teammates. Biles is renowned for helping other gymnasts find what they need to succeed, including Jordan Chiles, who moved to Texas to train with Biles (and didn’t give up on her Olympics dream because of Biles). As Biles made clear when she stepped down from competing this week, she believed in her team and knew it was time for them to take the spotlight. Sunisa Lee, in winning the gold medal for the all-around competition, did just that.
Let’s talk about Biles’ brave imagination in continually redefining herself, even saying, “After hearing the brave stories of my friends and other survivors, I know that this horrific experience does not define. I am much more than this.”
Most of all, let’s talk about the powerful grace of Simone Biles’ courage to say no, and to not follow the millions of harsh lights and loud yells to risk her own life and mental health. Biles not only brought to the world four extremely difficult moves named for her but a legacy for athletes, women, women of color, and survivors of sexual abuse to write their own life stories in tune with their wisdom, to listen to what’s right for them and to tell us their truths.