athletes, mental health, rants

The Olympic Games are not just about winning medals, Joe…

Yesterday, it was in the news that super talented American gymnast, Simone Biles, has decided to attempt her balance beam routine. I was glad to hear the news, not so much because I’m concerned about the gymnasts winning another gold medal, but because I think it would be important to Simone’s morale if she competed. Of course, if she had decided NOT to compete, I’d be okay with that, too. I think the decision to compete or NOT compete, is entirely up to Simone Biles. She’s the one who has put in the blood, sweat, and tears to get to where she is. And she and her parents (or grandparents) have certainly made financial and personal sacrifices for her to be able to perform at the level that she does. She doesn’t owe America a thing, as far as I’m concerned.

In 2016, Simone Biles went to Rio de Janeiro and won four gold medals and a bronze in women’s gymnastics. She’s four years older now, and at age 24, is quite seasoned for a gymnast. I think it’s amazing that she still competes at all, let alone at the Olympic level. And she has been performing at a level that is unattainable by the vast majority of humans, even though she’s no longer as young as most of them are when they reach the pinnacle of their careers. Simone Biles is the very picture of a winner on many levels.

But to see some of the shittiness leveled at Simone Biles since her decision to withdraw from most of the Olympic events in 2021, you’d think she was a national disgrace! I notice a lot of the comments come from white, conservative males who probably get winded climbing a flight of stairs and are only capable of winning beer guzzling contests. These self-important pricks have the nerve to criticize Simone for putting her needs first and taking care of herself. I’ll bet that if Simone had competed and hurt herself, these same guys would have no sympathy for her and would call her a “loser” for that, too.

Last night, I came across a comment thread on Facebook involving a mansplainer named Joe… Here’s what Joe has to say about Simone Biles and the idea that her decision to withdraw may help “transform sports”.

Quitting is not transforming.

Plenty of people responded to Joe. One lady wrote this:

Thanks for weighing in from the couch. I’m sure Simone will be so grateful for your helpful opinion.

Joe came back with this comment.

Her example let down the team. Understandable for her but certainly not positive for the team.

More people responded, including yours truly. I wrote this:

By not performing when she wasn’t well, she serves as a positive role model to others who might feel like they have to perform when they aren’t well.

I would rather see Simone and other athletes withdraw from competition than have accidents that kill or paralyze them. No medal is worth that.

And Joe, who seemed to be gleefully arguing with all comers wrote,

Letting down your team is not positive no matter what the reason. Understandable but not positive.

I thought about Joe’s comment for a moment, and responded thusly:

They did just fine without her, Joe. Another American won the all around. Another American won gold in floor exercise. Another American won silver on vault. Another American won bronze on the uneven parallel bars.

It turns out they didn’t need Simone, and if she had gotten hurt or killed, that would have put quite a damper on things, don’t you think? Wouldn’t she have let down her teammates by forcing them to witness a potential horror show? No one is 100% all the time. Not even Simone Biles.

And she was there to cheer them on, too, which I am sure was very helpful in these weird times of performing with no roar of the crowd.

Kindly pull your head out of your ass. The Olympic Games are not just about winning gold medals, nor should they be.

I stand by that comment. A lot of people are focused only on winning at the Games, but not everyone can win a medal. If the Games were just about winning medals, why would countries that have little chance of winning anything send their athletes? Why would they bother having opening and closing ceremonies, complete with the Olympic torch being carried? Why have people give speeches and musicians and dancers perform? Why speak about sportsmanship or friendship or competition?

The Games are, in part, about making money, promoting politics, and selling books, music, and movies, and that’s a fact. But there are also many stories that come out of the Olympics, and not just about people who win medals. There’s a human interest aspect to the Games that is important. Watching the Games and learning the stories of its participants is one way for the people of the world to learn about other countries and cultures.

Olympic Belarusian sprinter, Kristina Timanovskaya, is currently in the news because she criticized her coaches and she claims her safety was threatened. Belarus has been in the news lately because its leader, President Aleksandr Lukashenko, who’s been in power since 1994, has a habit of jailing people who criticize the government. In May, Belarusian authorities, under Lukashenko’s direction, forced a Ryanair plane bound for Vilnius, Lithuania, to land in Belarus. This was so that one of the passengers, Belarusian Roman Protasevich, could be arrested and jailed for criticizing the Belarusian government. Timanovskaya no doubt knows what could happen to her if she goes back to her homeland. She just got political asylum from Poland.

That’s just one example of a human interest story from the Tokyo Games. There have been so many others over the years, particularly during the Cold War era. When I was growing up, I remember watching beautiful figure skaters and gymnasts from the former Soviet Union. I always marveled at their talents, and curiously caught a glimpse of people from a place where Americans were, at that time, mostly forbidden to go. A few years later, when I did move to the former Soviet Union, I remembered those athletes and some of their stories. Although none of the athletes I remembered were from Armenia, where I went to live, they still somehow made me feel a connection to a place that was once Soviet.

I remember looking up flags and finding places on maps as I watched the Games and a particular athlete caught my eye. Those explorations always led to learning about other places and piqued my wonder about the world. Although I’ve never been one for watching most sports, the Olympics were always different to me. As someone who loves to hear and tell stories, I always enjoyed the stories that inevitably came from the Games.

Even if some people think that Games should solely be about winning, I think that’s the wrong attitude to take. They should be about athletes doing their best, making friends, and being good sports. I think Simone Biles and other athletes who have put their needs and well-being ahead of winning medals should be commended. Being allowed to compete at the Olympic Games is a real honor, and one that Biles proved she deserved. But no medal is worth losing someone’s health or life.

As we’ve seen in the recent women’s gymnastics scandals involving sexual, physical, emotional, and mental abuses, the relentless focus on winning is both unhealthy and unwise. So many women gymnasts were so terrified to speak up for themselves that Larry Nassar got away with sexually abusing hundreds of them in the name of providing “medical care”. And I’m sure I don’t need to get into the many stories of gymnasts who have tragically permanently injured or killed themselves trying to become Olympic legends. I recently covered that subject quite extensively.

I’m sure that Biles’ teammates worried that they wouldn’t do as well without the so-called G.O.A.T.’s performance. But, as it turned out, they did just fine without her, and the United States has had an excellent showing in the women’s gymnastics competition. Moreover, two young women now have had the chance to be gold medalists. Had Biles been on her game, they might not have had that opportunity. They did themselves and the United States proud, and we should be celebrating their amazing accomplishments, not criticizing Biles’ brave decision to take care of herself.

It wasn’t so long ago that U.S. women’s gymnastics weren’t all that impressive, but a U.S. woman has won the gymnastics all around at every Olympic Games since 2004. Thanks to Suni Lee’s awesome all around performance, that’s still true in 2021, even without Simone Biles. And Jade Carey won the floor exercise gold, too. MyKayla Skinner won silver on the vault, and Lee won a bronze on the uneven parallel bars… These young women are also champions, and they had a great chance to show everyone that. But even if they hadn’t won a single medal, they still have the extremely rare honor of being Olympians. No one can ever take that away from them.

I wish Simone Biles all the luck as she performs on the balance beam. I, for one, am proud of her for sharing the limelight, and for making sure she survives her years as a gymnast in one piece. I’m sure she has had many injuries over the years, some of which will always plague her. But she’s likely to be able to walk away from the Tokyo Olympics with her head held high, rather than rolled out on a stretcher because she had an accident. We can’t put a price on that.

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athletes, celebrities, mental health, psychology, tragedies, YouTube

Partial repost: Christy Henrich and Karen Carpenter, and discovering Dr. Todd Grande…

Recently, I watched a video done about Karen Carpenter by YouTube shrink, Dr. Todd Grande. Dr. Grande does videos about mental health topics in a trademark “flat” kind of way. When I first encountered him on YouTube, I didn’t like his videos that much because his delivery was so dry. But I kept coming back, because he chose interesting topics. After awhile, I realized that I enjoy his videos and even his “flat” style… especially when he throws shade in kind of a bland way. In the video he made about Karen Carpenter, Dr. Grande remarked that in terms of her musical talent, Karen was “like a Ferrari stuck on a go cart track”. He implied that she was much more talented than her brother, Richard, is. I got a kick out of that observation.

Karen Carpenter… Dr. Grande implies that her wings were clipped by her brother… Frankly, I think her mother was more of a wing clipper.

Personally, I disagree with Dr. Grande that Karen’s talent was that much more impressive than Richard’s is. They had strengths in different areas. Richard is a fantastic pianist, and he’s a great arranger. He knew what songs went best with Karen’s vocals. Karen was a magnificent singer and drummer. Together, they worked well. Both of them worked apart with somewhat less success. I do think that Karen and Richard had a very controlling mother, and personally, I think if anyone should be blamed for what happened to Karen Carpenter, it could be her mom that deserves the most shade. Agnes Carpenter was overbearing and overreaching… and she didn’t want her children to be independent adults. Moreover, she obviously favored Richard, which probably took a toll on Karen’s self esteem. Maybe that had to do with her development of anorexia nervosa. I don’t know.

Anyway… I enjoyed watching Dr. Grande’s video about Karen Carpenter and realized he’d done a bunch of similar videos about other celebrities. It occurred to me that it would be interesting to hear his thoughts on Christy Henrich, a brilliant 80s era gymnast who famously perished from anorexia nervosa in 1994. So I left him a comment. Maybe he’ll read and heed it. I really think it would be interesting to hear Dr. Todd Grande’s deadpan views about Christy’s public struggle with anorexia. She had a tremendous work ethic, which extended to her illness. At one point, Christy’s weight fell to 47 pounds. It’s not that I admire her for being that emaciated. It’s more of a comment on her sheer will power and relentless pursuit of her goals, self-destructive as they were. I’m sure a mental health expert would have a lot to say about her.

A video a YouTuber made about Christy Henrich.

In the meantime, below is a repost of an article I wrote in February 2014 about Christy Henrich for my original blog. It was inspired because Bill and I went on a “hop” to Spain and Portugal in January of that year. On the way back to Texas, we landed in Missouri and drove through Christy’s hometown of Independence, Missouri. I thought of her as I realized how much Missouri reminds me of Virginia. As usual, the repost appears “as/is”.

Remembering Christy Henrich

Back in the late 1980s, I had a brief but intense obsession with watching gymnastics.  I would catch meets on ESPN or Home Team Sports.  In those days, ESPN only had one channel and I believe HTS is now defunct.  I remember seeing very old footage of Shannon Miller when she was just 12 years old.  I remember watching Brandy Johnson and Phoebe Mills.  I could never so much as turn a cartwheel myself, but I really enjoyed watching the tiny girls compete.  I admired them for being so tough and strong.  I was into horses myself, though.

I also remember Christy Henrich, who was less than a month younger than me.  When I first saw her, she reminded me a bit of a soccer player.  Short and muscular without an ounce of fat on her, she didn’t have the long, graceful limbs of the Russian or Romanian gymnasts.  But she was very strong and had an amazing work ethic.  Her coach, Al Fong, even called her E.T. for extra tough. Sometimes, that extra tough work ethic worked against her, as you can see in the video below.

This may have even been the first meet I ever saw Christy in… This performance was not very good. The commentators say she “looks tired” and “doesn’t look right”. They also mention that she was warming up way before everyone else was.

Not being privy to anything going on in gymnastics that wasn’t aired on TV, I didn’t know about Christy Henrich’s eventual slide into anorexia nervosa and bulimia.  Back in those days, I had a bit of an obsession about eating disorders, too.  I knew a lot about them and even flirted with them.  If I had known about Christy, I might have even admired her for her anorexia.  That’s how dumb I was at 16.

Christy Henrich at 17

I remember watching the very intense 1988 Summer Olympics gymnastics trials.  I was kind of rooting for Kristie Phillips, an adorable strawberry blonde who had seemed poised for gymnastics stardom.  A growth spurt and weight gain had sidelined her in 1987 and she was back to try to win a spot on the team.  She placed 8th and was named a second alternate.  She would not be going to Seoul unless someone got hurt.  Christy Henrich missed the team altogether by .0118 of a point.  There was no hope for her at all, unless she set her sights on 1992 in Barcelona.

About Kristie Phillips, who also suffered from an eating disorder.
Kristie Phillips was on Oprah, along with Christy’s mom and boyfriend. Here, she talks about her suicidal ideation after she missed the Olympic team.

In 1990, a judge supposedly told Christy Henrich after a meet in Budapest, Hungary that in order to be a serious contender for the Olympics, she would need to lose weight.  At 4’11” and 93 pounds, Christy didn’t have much weight to lose.  But she took the judge’s words to heart and went on a serious diet, quickly shedding five pounds.  She was praised for the weight loss at first, but then she slid headlong into a battle that would eventually cost her her life.

Christy Henrich in 1990

By January 1991, she had lost so much weight that her coach, Al Fong, kicked her out of the gym.  A week after he kicked her out, she came in to tell him she was quitting the sport.  Though she had a loving family and a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, the eating disorders had taken hold of her.  On July 26, 1994, she died of multiple organ failure.  She had just turned 22 years old and she weighed less than 60 pounds.  At one point, her weight was just 47 pounds.

A clip from a 1995 episode of Oprah in which Christy’s mother and boyfriend talk about her struggles with eating disorders.  

I remember reading Joan Ryan’s book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.  In fact, I read an excerpt of it in the Washington Post just days before I left the country for Armenia to serve in the Peace Corps.  When I got home in 1997, I bought the book and read it.  It was about female gymnasts and figure skaters.  In 2000, Ryan updated the book, including discussion about Dominique Moceanu’s desire to be emancipated from her parents because her father was spending her money. 

I don’t know what made me think of Christy today.  It’s not her birthday or the anniversary of her death, though in July of this year, she will have been dead for 20 years.  That amazes me.  It seems like yesterday, we were 22 years old.  The older you get, the faster time flies.

Last month, as Bill and I worked our way back to Texas from our trip abroad, we drove through Christy’s hometown of Independence, Missouri.  We stayed a night in Kansas City, which is where Christy died.  For some reason, I even thought about Christy’s mother as we passed through.  It was frigid during our brief time there and, looking around, it didn’t look like the kind of place that would excite me.  On the other hand, I did notice how nice and folksy everyone seemed to be.  It seems like the kind of place you could get to know your neighbors.

Christy Henrich in 1987.

I’m sure that the last twenty years have been tough for all who knew and loved Christy Henrich.  What happened to her was just gruesome.  I still like watching gymnastics today, but remember Christy’s story reminds me that the sport has a bit of a dark side.  To read more about Christy Henrich, I recommend the book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes.  

An eye opening read.

Edited to add: in 2014, I still had no idea how dark gymnastics can be… that was before we knew about John Geddert and Larry Nassar.

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book reviews

Once an elite gymnast, prisoner, and porn star, now she’s Simply Verona…

I don’t remember how I first heard about former Dutch elite gymnast Verona van de Leur. I like watching women’s gymnastics, but I quit being a regular viewer a long time ago. I certainly never followed Dutch gymnasts. I don’t think they were regularly featured in the United States, anyway. But somehow, I was clued in to Verona van de Leur’s rather sordid story of leaving gymnastics only to wind up living in her car for two years, doing a stint in a Dutch prison, and becoming porn purveyor, and I decided that I needed to read her book, Simply Verona: Breaking All the Rules. This book was published in March of this year. I found it a fascinating, but very long and involved read.

In 2002, Verona van de Leur was at the top of the Dutch gymnastics scene. She was named Dutch sportswoman of the year in 2003.

Verona van de Leur, born in Gouda, South Holland, and named after the Italian city, was a gymnastics natural. She and her younger sister, Denise, both studied the discipline, but it was very obvious that Verona was born to tumble. According to her book, Verona van de Leur’s parents were very much invested in her career, and they shamed her whenever she didn’t win medals. As Verona got better and better at the sport, they and her original coach, Frank Luther, demanded more of her. One would think that a woman so gifted at a sport would want to do it, but Verona got to the point at which she hated gymnastics, despite her talent. She was forced to work out constantly, deny herself food that she loved, and submit to abuse from her parents and coaches.

Verona on the balance beam…

Naturally, the goal was for Verona to reach the Olympic Games. She met many wonderful gymnasts on the way up, including the great Romanian gymnast, Andreea Raducan, whose book I reviewed. Unfortunately, she suffered a very serious injury in Greece when a vault went horribly wrong. That vault was the beginning of her downward spiral. She very badly injured her foot and it was not properly cared for at the time. She continued to train even when she was seriously hurt because her parents and her coach wanted her to compete in the 2004 Olympics. Sadly, she missed those Games due to the injury not being properly tended to when it first happened. Verona changed coaches, exchanging The Netherlands’ top coach, Frank Luther, for a Russian coach named Boris Orlov. Boris was a better coach for her, but Verona still never made it to the Olympics.

Verona helps put the Dutch team on the map, although this particular routine had an unfortunate break.

As she struggled to recover from the serious injury, she grew to like gymnastics less and less. She was also getting older and more interested in life outside of the gym. She wanted to date. Her parents weren’t on board with letting her have that freedom, even as she became an adult. When she made noises about wanting to quit gymnastics, her parents would react with rage. Verona had a sponsor who paid her, and her parents were handling –or should I say mishandling— her money. In 2008, she finally did walk away from gymnastics. Her parents reacted by throwing her out of the house and disowning her.

A beautifully done vault.

Verona met a guy named Robbie on the Internet. He had a criminal past. Verona’s parents disapproved of him, which helped them decide to toss away their daughter. They were very resolute about their decision to throw her away, to the point of not even letting her see her grandmother or giving her a winter coat. Verona had to sneak around to see her grandma, who would sometimes slip her some money. Verona and Robbie were forced to live in a car for two years. They had to scrounge for every euro cent, and there were times when they didn’t even have enough to pay for a piss at the train station.

Verona ended up having to sue her parents because they had illegally taken her money and squandered it. Originally, she was awarded 1300 euros and the right to take her personal belongings, to include a laptop computer, which her father scrubbed clean before it was given to her. Verona bought a camera and one day, desperate from her situation, she caught a woman cheating on her husband. In a moment of impetuousness, Verona tried to blackmail the woman for 1,000 euros.

Meanwhile, Robbie, who is half Indonesian, was racially profiled while they were playing softball at a park. He had a criminal record and was carrying a bat, so someone at the park called the police, who arrested the couple. Verona was so flexible that she was able to get out of the police car while handcuffed. Not long after that arrest, the two were arrested again for Verona’s unsuccessful attempt to blackmail the adulterous couple she happened to catch on film. She spent 72 days in prison, as officials tried to also prosecute her for child porn, which was never actually found on her computer. It was scrubbed clean of data by her father, who had it in his possession when the porn was supposedly put there. Her description of the Dutch judicial system was very intriguing to me. I felt sad for her having gotten into this predicament, especially after she was used by her family. Verona eventually got a 90,000 euro settlement from her parents, which was paid in monthly installments. It wasn’t enough to live on, but it did help her move out of the car.

Verona tried to turn her life around by teaching gymnastics clinics and working with children. But when the news came out about her legal problems, none of the gyms wanted to work with her. She couldn’t find work, and therefore couldn’t get back to a life of “respectability”. So then she turned to the adult Web site industry, which turned out to be her permanent ticket out of poverty.

Verona van de Leur’s story is amazing, although it took me a long time to get through her book. It’s basically well written, though there are times when I can tell that English isn’t her native language. I also noticed that she has a tendency to use Internetisms like “LOL”. A good editor would have counseled her against that, although maybe it makes her more relatable to younger people.

I was actually kind of moved by her words about the people she met while working in porn. I have some experience with that world myself. Years ago, I used to be in an online community for people who enjoyed BDSM. It was not something I experimented with a lot, but I did get to know people who were into it. Most of them were perfectly normal people who were just a bit kinky. Some were very good people, with good hearts. I had some fantastic conversations with a lot of them and entertained some of them by writing erotica. In any case, Verona ended up making friends with people who were enchanted by her pay Web site. One user was a guy who had a rare disease that had killed his mother. Because of his illness, he’d never had much of a sex life, but he was a very kind person. Verona got to know him because he was a regular on her site. Sadly, he did pass away, and she was very much affected by it, even though he’d been a “customer”.

Dutch pop inspired by Verona van de Leur… wonder what Verona’s parents think now. She is still estranged from them over ten years later.

The porn industry helped Verona earn enough money to get out of the dire financial situation she was in. She is now on her feet, having spent a year and a half writing Simply Verona. She has learned from others in the adult sex industry, but she’s also gotten to know musicians and artists, having inspired Ellen ten Damme to write a song about her. She quit the adult film industry in November 2019. However, she still uses her pole dancing skills, as you can see in the above video.

I enjoyed reading Verona van de Leur’s story. She has really led a fascinating life with many twists and turns. If I weren’t in Germany, I’m not sure I would have heard of her… but I will definitely recommend her book. It’s very much an eye opener, that proves that gymnastics is a pretty tough sport wherever you are.

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