First and foremost, congratulations to the USA women’s gymnastics team for nabbing a silver under unexpected circumstances — I don’t think enough has been made of their grit under pressure! — and to Suni Lee for becoming the first Asian woman from any country to win all-around gold. Brilliant. This entire slideshow is full of photos that demonstrate what a remarkable feat gymnastics is, and a testament to the physical risks these athletes take. They’re all incredible.
The Simone Biles takes have circulated fast and furious already, and it likely won’t surprise anyone here that we’re in full agreement that prioritizing mental health is the way to go. People act like she just casually bailed, as if it was the easiest choice in the world, when surely it was agony. Simone is a hungry competitor and she’s smart. There’s no way this didn’t slice her clean through, and she knew what the angry hot takes would be, but nonetheless she made the call that she felt kept her safe — and she did it on her own, without family there to hold her hand. She was her own bodyguard.
The notion that Biles should have pushed through for the sake of her team is tied up in the same kind of toxic pressure that has NFL athletes lying about concussion symptoms to get back on the field, or coaches having 14-year old Dominique Moceanu keep competing after she cracked her neck on the beam. (Never mind that one could argue Simone fulfilled her obligation to her team by removing herself from the equation when she felt her scores would pull them off the podium.) Divers and gymnasts have come out in droves to explain the twisties, and how tricky it is to get over them — it may require extensive help from a sports psychologist — and they do often seem intertwined with anxiety. Simone tried. She didn’t have the spatial awareness. It would have been catastrophic. If Ben Roethlisberger gets the yips, the worst he does is throw a bunch of interceptions. If Lebron James loses his shot, he doesn’t risk his life. If Simone Biles performs tricks that are so hard and so rare that they’re named after her, and she can’t trust her body and her mind to work together, she could land on her head at full force.
Maybe just releasing this much of the pressure valve will help her find her center again, and she’ll do the event finals. Maybe it won’t, and she won’t. But Biles won five medals in Rio, has 25 other medals from Worlds, pushed the sport to new heights even though scoring-wise it has stopped rewarding her for it, came of age in a dysfunctional system, suffered sexual abuse from Larry Nasser, and stuck around to compete so that one of Nasser’s victims would still be on the team (thereby making it harder for USA Gymnastics to brush his, or its own, crimes aside). Simone Biles gave this sport her past. She does not owe it her future. She does not owe it her spine. She owes no one except herself a damn thing, and I’m glad she had the strength to give herself the gift of a step back, a breath, and then, a step away.