Happy April Fools’ Day, folks. I was originally thinking maybe I’d write something in the spirit of the day… like falsely post that I’m finally pregnant, or Bill and I are divorcing. But then I realized that I generally find April Fools’ Day annoying, at best. I mean… sometimes, the jokes and stunts are relatively amusing, but I mostly think silly fake postings about major life events are kind of stupid.
I will admit that it’s funny when Ritter Sport comes up with gross sounding chocolate combinations. Below is a screenshot of what they did in 2019…
Euro Wings also had a funny April Fools’ joke today…
And some time ago, NPR had a pretty good joke about people who don’t read before they react or comment. I used that joke at another time during the year, and sure enough, I got someone… Then, I promptly blogged about the phenomenon.
But I don’t want to write about April Fools’ or the inane shit I’m going to see as my fellow Americans wake up and start posting their crap. I posted last night that I think more Americans should zip it. And I stand by that opinion. 😉 You readers might think I ought to zip it, too, but since this is space I pay for, I’m going to preach on with my bad self. 😀
So what about that title, then? What’s it about? Well, it’s about a 1979 era gymnastics video I watched on YouTube yesterday. I love to watch old school gymnastics, which were less about powerful tumbles and more about artistic expression. I also find the former Soviet Union fascinating.
I happened to catch this video that featured some of the greats of that era– Nadia Comaneci, Emilia Eberle, Kathy Johnson, and Elena Naimushina. Sadly, Ms. Naimushina died suddenly in 2017, but in 1979, she was about 14 years old. She was a great gymnast, so she was interviewed by American sportscaster, Charlie Jones. Charlie Jones was born in 1930, and died in 2008. In 1979, he was pushing 50.
At about the 2:36 mark, Jones says “Every pretty girl that I interview, always kisses me right here on the cheek.”
Elena laughs as the translator does her job. Then, after a shy giggle, she says “That is something that you can look forward to after the competition.” Then Jones and Elena share a laugh… har-dee-har-har-har!
I was actually a little shocked as I heard Mr. Jones request a kiss from the young gymnast. But then I remember the 70s, and how kids were often pressured to let adults kiss them. Eddie Murphy had a whole 80s era routine about it.
To Elena’s credit, she managed to handle that awkward moment with grace and charm. Still, it was pretty creepy and inappropriate. Of course, that shit would never fly in 2023, especially given the whole Larry Nassar scandal. I guess it’s just crazy to realize that I was seven years old in 1979, and this kind of thing was quite common. Old guys would not hesitate to ask for intimate gestures of affection from kids. It happened to me a lot when I was coming of age. It was an especially common thing to see on games shows like Family Feud, especially back when Richard Dawson was the host.
Nowadays, people wouldn’t necessarily assume that Jill prefers males. Or that Jill is, in fact, a female herself… By now, Jill is probably someone’s grandmother. And, of course, today we’d worry about spreading COVID-19.
Isn’t it interesting how times change? At what point does a person stop being considered “young”? Does it happen at a certain age? I swear, it seems like yesterday that I was a teenager. Now I’m getting old enough to live in a retirement community!
I do think it’s a good thing that requests for kisses and comments to twelve year old girls about boyfriends are best left in the past. But watching these clips, posted when I was a child myself, are a reminder that time marches on, customs change, and things that once used to be okay to say or do can eventually evolve into something very taboo. And that’s no April Fools’ joke!
I had kind of a busy day yesterday, although I was keeping an eye on the news. I had a feeling we’d finally get the verdict in Josh Duggar’s federal court case. I knew he was going to be found guilty, but there were some people who were a bit nervous, since the jury was taking some time to come to a decision. And, although my gut feelings are usually pretty accurate, there’s always a chance for surprises.
There were no surprises yesterday. Josh Duggar is now a convicted sex offender. In a few months, he will get his sentence and be off to prison, likely somewhere far from Arkansas. Below is his mugshot, which is bizarre looking. Who smiles for a mug shot taken under such shameful circumstances?
Like many people, I’ve been following the Duggar Family News Facebook page, as well as the private group that is associated with it. Some people are saying that Josh is smiling because he’s being like the Paul the Apostle. It was explained that Josh’s children are being taught that their father is being persecuted. I don’t know much about the story of Paul, but one thing I do remember hearing is that Paul was famously misogynistic. Given the way Josh reportedly treats women, perhaps the moniker fits somewhat. In any case, I’m sure that Josh’s older children, who know their father and will miss him, have to be told something about why he’s not going to be home with them anymore. Or… maybe Josh is out of his mind.
I first became aware of Josh’s conviction because of a friend. Although I had been paying attention to the news yesterday, I turned my attention away from it for awhile to watch Call the Midwife. When I checked Facebook again, I noticed I was tagged in a news article. It was just the first tag. I probably ought to stop following the Duggars. I think people who follow them contribute to Jim Bob Duggar’s delusions of grandeur. The truth is, that family isn’t any more blessed than any other family is, in spite of all of the “blessings” God supposedly sent them, courtesy of Michelle Duggar’s hyperactive womb fertilized by a man who no doubt encouraged his eldest son to go down a very dark road.
Josh will spend the next few months locked up in county jail. It will suck a lot for him. According to Jessica Kent, a former convict who now has a very popular YouTube channel, being locked up in county jail sucks because there’s nothing to do, and inmates are generally locked down most of the time. Jessica even did time in Arkansas, so she has a concept of what it’s like where Josh is, although she was arrested in Fort Smith, while Josh is in Fayetteville. An interesting side note– my husband, Bill, lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas at the end of his first marriage. That’s why he was a member of the Arkansas National Guard.
In any case, it was early evening when I found out about Josh’s fate, but Josh was locked up at about noon his time. He’s currently spending his first night as a convicted sex offender, and in a matter of months, he will probably leave Arkansas for a federal prison in a location where his deviant sexual proclivities and the security risks associated with them can be dealt with appropriately. Before he gets his assignment, he will probably be taken to another facility, where he will be classified.
I don’t know too much about that process, but I do remember reading a book called Fish by T.J. Parsell, in which the process of being classified was described as very unpleasant. Parsell’s situation was not like Josh’s. His story is about being a boy in a man’s prison. I read that book in the spring of 2009, when we lived in Germany the first time. I remember being very affected by that story, as Parsell was not a sex offender. Instead, he was a victim of a brutal prison rape that occurred after he was drugged by other inmates.
I think my opinions about prisoners changed when I read that book. On the other hand, I do think Josh Duggar’s conviction was entirely appropriate. I don’t wish for him to be harmed by other prisoners… but I won’t be surprised if it happens. Child molesters are definitely at the bottom of the totem pole in a prison environment. And the fact that Josh comes from a relatively wealthy family and was a reality TV star may make him especially attractive to other inmates.
I just read an interesting 2017 era article titled “Where do federal sex offenders go to prison?” It was written by Zachary Margulis Ohnuma about Anthony Weiner, a former Congressman who was convicted and sentenced to 21 months in federal prison for sexting with a 15 year old. The author of the article points out that the sex offender treatment offered in prison may put Josh Duggar in even more jeopardy. He writes:
While it is true that BOP offers sex offender treatment in prison, experiences vary — and the Fifth Amendment right to silence does not carry a lot of weight. Inmates in sex offender programs are surrounded by other sex offenders. They are pushed by counsellors to admit to doing more than they admitted to in court. After all, the philosophy goes, not everyone gets caught for every crime they ever committed. While sex offender treatment has been shown, as a general matter, to be effective, the programs offered in prison are akin to the food on offer there — not something you would want to partake of unless it was absolutely necessary.
I would imagine that Josh will go to a prison where he can get treatment. I don’t know if he will be forced to accept treatment. In any case, having looked at the official Web site for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it does not appear that Arkansas offers any facilities that provide treatment for sex offenders. There are two facilities in Texas and one in Illinois that have sex offender treatment programs. Those would be the closest to Arkansas. I don’t know what that will mean for Josh’s wife, Anna, and their seven children. My guess is that they’ll stay in Arkansas, but one never knows.
Anna has been incredibly loyal to Josh, in spite of his many obvious shortcomings. That loyalty may end up working against her. As it stands now, it’s possible that Anna could soon face charges herself, especially if it’s discovered that she turned a blind eye toward any abuse perpetrated by Josh toward the children. I suspect that her children will be interviewed by child protective services, if that hasn’t yet happened. Those kids have already had to cope with their father being forced out of the home and their mother spending most of her time with him, instead of them. I’m sure that CPS will want to know a lot more about how the children are doing, now that their father is a convicted sex offender.
I can’t help thinking about how bizarre all of this must be for the children in the Duggar family. I don’t just mean Josh’s children, but also his brothers and sisters and their children. The cognitive dissonance must be incredible. Josh has done some terrible things and has brought shame to his family. But his parents are “praying” for him, and did all they could to help him, while they cast out one of his victims. And Jim Bob is still campaigning to be elected to the Arkansas Senate. I think if Jim Bob is elected, I will lose all hope for humanity in Arkansas.
I get the impression that Jim Bob sort of runs a cult with a cult. Yesterday, I wrote a book review about a woman who was raised in Bill Gothard’s cult– the same one the Duggars are in. Being raised in Gothard’s ATI and IBLP is bad enough. But I think the Duggar family goes further than that. I think Jim Bob is the head of his own cult, where there are many “alternative facts” and “alternative realities” that everyone within the sphere must adhere to. Jim Bob clearly has his own versions of events. In fact, he clearly lies when the situation suits him, even though that goes against Biblical principles. He tells his children to tell the truth and repent, but those rules don’t apply to Jim Bob.
Anyone within Jim Bob Duggar’s sphere has to do what he wants them to do. Those who can’t or won’t follow his rules and devote themselves to him will soon find themselves cast out of the family circle. What Jim Bob is doing is nothing unusual among narcissists. I’ve seen my husband’s ex wife do the same thing to her family members. Anyone who won’t adhere to her fantasy world gets cast out because people who speak the truth and see things clearly are a threat to her power. I think Jim Bob runs his family and church like that.
Years ago, I wrote a blog post about an experience I had when I was in college, back in the early 1990s. I remember a hypnotist came to our school and put on a very entertaining show. Volunteers were brought up on stage and the hypnotist would put them under, then make them do hilarious things. Along with the volunteers, there were also spotters who were tasked with helping the hypnotist. Anyone participating who didn’t fall under his spell was escorted off stage. This was because those who didn’t fall under hypnosis threatened the act. I don’t think it’s that much different when it comes to people like Jim Bob and Ex. Those who don’t fall under the spell need to be escorted out so they don’t “ruin” the illusion for others.
I think Jill Dillard used to be among the biggest believers in Jim Bob’s “mini cult”. But she has been deprogrammed by her husband, Derick. Jill and Derick have been ostracized by the family, even though Jill is one of Josh’s victims. If anything, Jim Bob should have been protecting her and the rest of his daughters from his deviant son. But, instead of being supportive and loving of Jill, Jim Bob has made her and her family unwelcome. In the long run, this is probably a better thing for Jill, but it still means she’s lost her family of origin. She serves as an example to others, keeping them “in line” by showing them that if they disobey, they will be ostracized. The same thing goes for “cousin Amy”, who has also spoken out against Jim Bob. The minute she did that, she was cast out of the fold.
Jim Bob rewards his followers with homes, jobs, and money. But the minute the see the truth and speak it– the minute they think for themselves and act accordingly– they have to be escorted out, much like those resistant people from the hypnotist’s show. What they may not understand is that there are people outside of that cult system who can and will help them. They don’t have to cling to the bad situation. They can make the courageous choice to escape, once they are over 18. A few of Jim Bob’s children have made that choice, but some of the others are still firmly entrenched. No matter what, as long as there is breath in Jim Bob’s body, he will always see his children as his possessions– even the ones he’s cast out of the family circle. If there’s anything I have learned about narcissistic parents, it’s that they almost never let anyone go completely.
We’ll see what the future holds. One thing is for certain, though. Josh Duggar’s days as a free man are over. He’s going away, and probably for a long time. His children will surely be safer without him around, but it’s still a hard thing for them. No matter what, he’s still their father, and they will always have a connection to him. I think if anyone needs and deserves prayers, it’s the children who have been harmed by Josh… or any other pervert who preys on the innocent.
The sad thing is, as horrible and disgusting as Josh Duggar’s actions are, there are still people who are much worse than he is. Bill and I were talking about this over breakfast. I think Larry Nassar is worse. I can think of some much lesser known people I think are worse, or have committed worse crimes. For instance, Brian and Shannon Gore, who were from my hometown, committed absolutely heinous child abuse that resulted in one child’s death and another’s permanent damage to her health. So… I try to keep that in mind as I gaze at Josh Duggar’s strangely happy looking visage in his mug shot. But this prison experience will probably be just the beginning for the horrors of Josh Duggar’s life from now on. Maybe God will have mercy on him… but I doubt his fellow inmates will.
Below is a link to Fish, the book I mentioned up post. If you purchase through the link, I will get a small commission from Amazon. I will warn that the book is not for the faint of heart.
The women’s gymnastics competition is over at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. For the first time in many years, the last name “Karolyi” was not part of the Olympic action. Although I have never been the slightest bit gymnastically inclined myself, I’ve watched the sport since the late 1980s. In those days, Bela and Marta Karolyi were super hot gymnastics coaches who were known for guiding athletes like Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton to global stardom. By 1991, the Karolyis had added the teenaged phenom, Kim Zmeskal, to their stable of amazing gymnasts. At the time, it truly seemed the Karolyis could do no wrong, even if behind closed doors, things were not as they seemed.
I just finished reading the book Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics. This book, published May 31, 1994, was probably mostly written by ghost author Nancy Ann Richardson, but it’s Bela Karolyi’s life story, such as it was at that time. In the 90s, most of us either didn’t know or turned a blind eye to the abuses suffered by women gymnasts, particularly at the elite level. The Karolyis, while controversial, were also very charismatic people. It made sense that Bela would share his story with the masses. As it’s written in this book, the whitewashed version of Bela Karolyi’s tale is the stuff of which American dreams are made. It would take many years before more of the truth about the Karolyis started to leak out, and their motives and methods were questioned.
I picked up a used copy of this book a few months ago. At the time, I also purchased Kerri Strug’s book, Landing on My Feet: A Diary of Dreams. Both Bela’s and Kerri’s books are out of print, so I had to wait for physical copies of them to reach me. Kerri Strug was one of Bela’s gymnasts, and she’s best known for sticking her second vault at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when she was badly hurt. In the wake of Simone Biles’ controversial decision to withdraw from most of the Olympic events in Tokyo, there’s been a renewed interest in Kerri’s famous Olympic story. Consequently, I’ve noticed a lot of people hitting my review of Kerri Strug’s book, which I wrote in April of this year.
Kerri’s book got to me much faster than Bela’s did, and as I recall, I managed to read it within a day or so. It was an overwhelmingly positive book, even the parts about disgraced former physician, Larry Nassar, who was there to help Kerri after Bela carried her off the floor following her historic vault. I think I actually meant to read Bela’s book first, and threw Kerri’s into my Amazon cart as an afterthought, not realizing that Kerri Strug would be remembered at this year’s Olympic Games. But as it turned out, Bela’s book would prove to be less interesting and relevant than Kerri’s book is, especially in 2021. Kerri Strug is now relevant, while Bela Karolyi no longer is.
Feel No Fear begins with a story about the 1979 Gymnastics World Championships, which were held in Forth Worth, Texas. At the time, Bela Karolyi, and his wife, Marta, were the women’s gymnastics coaches in Romania. They had brought a young team of gymnasts with them to Texas, along with Nadia Comaneci, who had recently gotten back into shape after having been “kidnapped” from Karolyi’s tutelage and “trained” by less oppressive coaches in Bucharest.
Nadia had injured her wrist, and Bela had dressed the minor wound the night before, but a Romanian official– Bela’s nemesis– had spirited Nadia away to a local hospital. There, doctors had supposedly done a surgical procedure on the injury, numbing and heavily bandaging it, and effectively rendering Nadia useless to the team. Bela was, of course, livid, but at the time, he was subject to the whims of government flunkies who did the bidding of Romania’s dictatorial president at the time, Nicolae Ceausescu. The Fort Worth story isn’t resolved until later in the book; it serves as a hook to get people invested in Bela’s story.
After setting up the scene, Karolyi’s life story starts at the beginning. Bela Karolyi was born September 13, 1942, in what was then Kolozsvár, Hungary, but is now Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He was the second child of an engineer father and his mild mannered wife, and younger brother to his older sister. Karolyi mentions that his paternal grandfather was a very gregarious Hungarian man who liked parties and pretty women. His grandmother was a very stern German woman. Karolyi, who thinks he’s a bit like his grandfather, explains that his grandparents split up, and he was denied much of a relationship with his grandfather. Bela laments that he never really got to know the man, especially since his father was more like his strict and apparently humorless and demanding German grandmother.
Bela Karolyi’s father wanted him to follow in his footsteps as an engineer. But Bela was more interested in sports. Bela’s interest in sports and lack of affinity for the sciences caused friction in his home. When Bela decided to study physical education instead of science, his father threw him out of the family home. Bela Karolyi had to live by his muscles and wits to get through university. He pursued sports with a passion– hammer throwing, handball, track, and boxing, specifically. He had to take a gymnastics class as part of his studies and apparently hated it, at first. But then he met Marta Erőss, who was also an ethnic Hungarian. Marta had been a gymnast in high school, and was also studying physical education. The two were a love match, and they got married in 1963.
The story/legend continues, much as I’ve seen it depicted in movies like Nadia…
Karolyi explains that he found the Romanian regime oppressive. He was constantly at odds with government officials, who wouldn’t let him run his program without interference. In 1981, having been forced to lead a team of Romanian gymnasts, including Nadia Comaneci, on a U.S. tour, Bela and Marta Karolyi, along with the team’s choreographer, Geza Poszar, decided to defect. They lost their minders in the busy streets of New York City. At the time, the Karolyis didn’t speak English, and they only had one of Marta’s aunts to help them assimilate. Their young daughter, Andrea, was still in Romania, and they weren’t sure if they’d ever be able to get her out of there. They had no home and no money. Still, through apparent grit and determination, the Karolyis were able to claw their way into the U.S. gymnastics scene, and they went on to create a “powerhouse” of women gymnasts.
Karolyi writes a bit about some of his more famous American clients, to include Dianne Durham, one of the first Black elite gymnasts. Durham recently died, and her first name is repeatedly misspelled “Diane” in the book. He includes comments about Mary Lou Retton, Kristie Phillips, and her mother, Phoebe Mills, Chelle Stack, Brandy Johnson, Rhonda Faehn, and Kim Zmeskal. I found this part of the book interesting, although I also thought some of his more candid comments, particularly the negative ones, were kind of telling. I remember reading an unofficial manuscript Chelle Stack’s mother wrote about working with Bela. It seems there wasn’t much love lost there.
Throughout the book, Bela Karolyi comes off as passionate, dedicated, and even kind. He includes several well known stories about how he achieved the American Dream. Some of the stories are kind of funny, like, for instance, his tale about how, when he was learning English, he thought the term “son of a bitch” was a compliment. Karolyi is supposedly an animal lover who loves dogs, and thought it was a good thing to be called a “child of a dog”. He writes that he’d actually wanted to be a veterinarian, but lacked the political and social contacts in Romania to achieve that dream. Physical education was actually Karolyi’s second choice of a career.
This generous, humorous, and gregarious side of Karolyi’s was also the public persona most people saw, especially when he was on television. However, in the wake of the gymnastics scandal of a few years ago, we found out that this was mostly a facade. Gymnasts like Dominique Moceanu have spoken out about Karolyi’s methods, which were said to be abusive and even sadistic. In fact, just this year, there was a book published in Romania called Nadia and the Securitate, which includes information about Bela and Marta Karolyi. It was written by Romanian historian, Stefjarel Olaru, and based on interviews with Romanian gymnasts and records kept by the Securitate (Romania’s secret police during Ceausescu’s reign). The gymnasts reported that the Karolyis beat and starved them, and in fact, Comaneci supposedly attempted suicide by drinking bleach when she was fifteen years old. She reportedly was happy to be hospitalized for two days, because it meant she didn’t have to go to the gym.
I remember in March 1990, an issue of Life Magazine came out. Nadia was on the cover, as she had recently defected from Romania, just weeks before the Ceausescu regime fell. I recall reading that article in the library at Longwood College (now university), shocked by the negative way Nadia was portrayed. She reportedly had bulimia and was “narcissistic”, although it later came out that the much older man who had helped her escape Romania was actually holding her captive. Nadia revamped her image and is now married to fellow Olympic gold medalist gymnast, Bart Conner. But I clearly remember that in the early 90s, Nadia was depicted as some kind of “euro trash”, while her former coach was supposedly the greatest gymnastics coach ever. I guess it just goes to show that you can’t always trust what you read.
I think Feel No Fear is basically well-written. The ghostwriter did a good job making the story sound like it came directly from Bela Karolyi. There are two photo sections, which include old photos of Karolyi and his family. Those photos might have even been worth the price of the book. However, I think this book is largely whitewashed PR, which depicts Karolyi in an undeserved flattering light. I notice that Karolyi is quick to take credit for successes and just as quick to deflect blame when things go wrong. There’s no question in my mind that many of Bela’s methods were extremely abusive, even if the Karolyis did produce some champions. I wonder if the fleeting fame of a gold medal is worth a lifetime of psychological and physical trauma. I suppose I’d have to ask Karolyi’s former gymnasts about that. Karolyi himself is reportedly now suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
I did find Feel No Fear to be intriguing reading, although perhaps not in the way Karolyi had intended it to be. It’s especially interesting to read about Karolyi’s methods in the wake of Simone Biles’ decision to look after her own mental health and well-being, over taking one for the team. Biles was one of Larry Nassar’s many victims, and she has suffered incredible stress. Not only was she under tremendous pressure to perform perfectly at the Olympics this year, but she’s also had to contend with her brother’s serious legal issues, which only now seem to be rectifying.
I think if Bela or Marta Karolyi had been coaching this year’s gymnastics team, Biles would have been under intense pressure to perform, even if it meant seriously injuring or killing herself. As the world witnessed back in 1996, Bela Karolyi had no problem spurring his gymnasts on to fame, even when they were seriously hurt, as Kerri Strug was. Yes, Kerri stuck her vault, but at what price? And isn’t she very lucky that she didn’t permanently injure or kill herself on live TV?
I don’t think Feel No Fear is widely available anymore. I do think it’s worth reading, if only for historical purposes, and if only to demonstrate how much bullshit the U.S. gymnastics machine has been peddling for so many years. Joan Ryan’s 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, is the first one I remember reading that shined a light on just how abusive the sports of women’s gymnastics and women’s figure skating can be. It’s taken over 25 years for people to realize how right Joan Ryan was, especially in light of Larry Nassar’s abuses. Remember, Nassar was regarded as a “nice guy”. Gymnasts trusted him because he was “kind” and gave them food and comfort, while coaches like the Karolyis (and others) would scream, throw things, starve them, and even beat them to get results. That trust set them up for even more egregious abuse.
I, for one, am glad to see this sport evolving, and people like Simone Biles, who is unquestionably extremely athletically gifted, showing everyone that there’s more to life than winning… and more to gymnastics than competing at all costs. I hope she’s able to continue to usher an end to the abusive era in which Bela and Marta Karolyi encouraged and participated. I admire the Karolyis for their ability to get out of Romania and succeed in the United States, but I do not appreciate the unethical manner in which they achieved those dreams– by abusing impressionable and ambitious young women (and their parents) who simply wanted to win at all costs.
As for Feel No Fear, I think it’s a well-polished and whitewashed version of the Karolyi legend. It’s an enjoyable enough read, if you don’t know anything about gymnastics or the truth regarding the Karolyis. But I think anyone who knows anything about elite gymnastics during the Karolyi era is going to see this story for what it really is… well-formed and highly polished bullshit.
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Simone Biles is in the news again. This time, it’s not because she managed to pull off some incredible gymnastics feat at the Tokyo Olympics. This time, she’s in the news because she pulled off a different kind of incredible feat. She knew when to quit.
Regular readers might have noticed that I follow women’s gymnastics. I’m not an obsessive fan, or anything. In fact, I have zero gymnastics talent myself. I could never so much as turn a cartwheel, even when I was a young girl. I just like to watch gymnastics, in part, because of the drama of the sport, and because of the insane violations of physics gymnasts are able to do. I’m impressed by the grace and athleticism of gymnasts, even if I know that there’s a dark side to the sport.
Simone Biles is known as the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). Two days ago, she proved why she’s the G.O.A.T. by bravely pulling out the team competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games. She also pulled out the the all around competition, and will not be defending the gold medal she won in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Simone introduced the world to a special condition that gymnasts get. That condition is called “the twisties”, and basically it means that while she was in mid air, Simone lost focus and the ability to control her body, putting her in great danger.
Biles’ performance at the Tokyo Games has been notably off kilter. Last week, she qualified to compete in all of the event finals, but her routines weren’t going as brilliantly as they historically have. We didn’t know it at the time, but Simone was dealing with incredible stress that was messing with her mental health. Amazingly enough, it’s a sign of her overall mental health that she decided to leave the competition. She was wise enough not to keep going, despite the extreme pressure she’s no doubt been under for years. Biles not only had the incredible pressure to perform at the Olympics, she also had some personal family drama, as just last month, her brother Tevin Biles-Thomas, was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges in a 2018 shooting incident. No doubt, Biles’ brother’s legal problems were an added source of stress for the world class gymnast.
I’ve been watching women’s gymnastics long enough to have seen and heard about some really horrific accidents. There’s the now deceased former Soviet gymnast, Elena Mukhina, who attempted a Thomas Salto just weeks before the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Mukhina had told her coach that she was going to break her neck trying to do the Salto. Her coach told her to get over her fear. Unfortunately, Mukhina knew her limits better than the coach did, but lacked the ability to say “no”. She attempted the Salto, under rotated, and landed on her chin. Sure enough, Mukhina’s awful prediction came to pass. She broke her neck, and spent the next 26 years a quadriplegic. In 2006, Mukhina died at age 46, due to issues related to the paralysis.
There’s also Julissa Gomez, who was about my age. In May 1988, the fifteen year old gymnast, daughter of Mexican immigrants, had a terrible accident that left her paralyzed. She was in Tokyo, Japan, planning to compete in the World Sports Fair. Gomez was attempting to do a Yurchenko vault, but had never gotten completely comfortable with her technique. Sometimes, when she would try to do the difficult maneuver, her feet would miss the springboard. In those days, gymnasts vaulted on a horizontally placed horse, rather than the table that is used today.
Gomez was warming up on May 5th, 1988, practicing the Yurchenko for the vault finals. She ran headlong toward the vault; then, her foot slipped on the springboard, causing her to slam head first into the vault. From that instant onward, Gomez was paralyzed from the neck down. She was placed on a ventilator, which tragically became disconnected. The lack of oxygen caused severe brain damage. Gomez missed her Olympic dream, and spent the next three years languishing, until she finally died in August 1991, at age 18.
It should be mentioned that at the time of her death, Julissa Gomez was coached by Al Fong, who also coached the late gymnast, Christy Henrich. Henrich, who was also about my age, died in 1994 at age 22, after she suffered a harrowing ordeal with anorexia nervosa.
Gomez was previously coached by Bela Karolyi, who is well known in the women’s gymnastics world for his bigger than life personality, as well as his allegedly abusive methods. It was Bela Karolyi who cheered on Kerri Strug in 1996, convincing her to vault a second time at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, even though Strug was seriously injured. Fortunately, Strug did not end up paralyzed after that historic vault, but I would not be surprised if she still has issues with that ankle.
If you watch Kerri do this vault, you can see that she was running on pure adrenaline as she raced toward the horse and flipped through the air, landing on one foot. It’s amazing to see. At the time, people hailed her as a heroine, and she was the talk of the Games. I will admit, this is definitely the stuff of true grit. Since Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of Olympic competition, people have been looking at Kerri Strug’s vault differently. Some have been saying that Biles doesn’t have as much “grit” as Strug did in 1996, but others have noted that Kerri should have been allowed to say “no” to that second vault. She was clearly injured, and doing a second vault with such a severe injury put her at extreme risk.
At the same Olympics, Dominique Moceanu clawed her way on the balance beam. She almost fell off after making an error in which she hit her head. She was extremely lucky she wasn’t seriously injured. Moceanu said no one checked her after she hit her head on the beam.
In July 1998, Sang Lan, a Chinese gymnast, came to New York City to compete at the Goodwill Games. During warm ups for the vault event final, Lan, who was known as an excellent vaulter, attempted to do a “timer”, a simple vault meant to help the gymnast familiarize herself with the equipment. She fell, landing on her head, seriously injuring her spinal cord, and she was unable to raise herself off the mat. Lan spent the next year in New York City, paralyzed from the chest down. She remains paralyzed today, at age 40. Through physical therapy, Lan eventually regained some use of her arms and hands.
It really saddens me to read comments from people who say Simone Biles didn’t “belong” at the Olympics. What kind of bullshit is that? She is an exceptional athlete who has proven time and again that no one else can touch her. Now that she’s pulled out of the all around, it’s anybody’s guess who will take home the gold. Although even if Biles hadn’t pulled out, that would be true. I remember in 1992, watching teenaged gymnast Kim Zmeskal slip off the balance beam at the Olympics in Barcelona. At the time, Zmeskal was thought to be the favorite to win the gold. Seconds into her routine, that dream of winning gold was over for her. Her teammate, Shannon Miller, ended up in the spotlight instead.
I also remember Kristie Phillips, who at age 14, was billed as the “New Mary Lou”. By the time the 1988 Olympics rolled around, Phillips had grown taller and gained weight. She wasn’t the gymnast she had been in 1986. And she didn’t make the Olympic team. She was named “second alternate”, which meant she didn’t get to go to Seoul. The devastation of that caused Kristie Phillips to suffer terrible mental health issues, to include suicidal ideation. I was so sad for Kristie, as I had been watching her during the Olympic Trials and really rooted for her.
Women’s gymnastics is a truly beautiful sport. I love watching it, but I think if I had a daughter, I would not want her to be a gymnast. Besides the incredibly difficult and dangerous skills gymnasts do, there’s also the horror of the sexually abusive former team doctor, Larry Nassar, who molested hundreds of gymnasts under the guise of giving them “medical care”. Simone Biles was one of Nassar’s victims, and I’m sure the trauma related to that contributed to the mental state she found herself in this week in Tokyo.
Because Simone knew when to quit, she won’t be facing a tragic future… or NO future at all. She can move on after gymnastics. And so what if she didn’t win gold for America? She’s already done that! We have no right to demand anything at all of her, but we especially have no right to tell her to keep going when her body and mind have told her it’s time to quit. Because when it comes down to it, after the Olympics, athletes are on their own. They have to move on beyond the glory days. Very few of them become rich and famous from their athletic pursuits, and I’ve read many sad stories of former great athletes who didn’t know what to do with themselves once the Olympic dream was over for them.
Simone Biles is only 24 years old– a baby to most adults. But consider that age 24 is very old for a gymnast. She’s been under a lot of stress for many years– physically, mentally, and emotionally. The Nassar case happened fairly recently– add in the legal battle her brother was recently fighting, the tremendous pressure to win gold for America, and the tremendous physical and mental toll gymnastics places on its participants, and you have a woman who must have been on the razor’s edge of sanity. And yet, it’s a clear sign that Simone Biles is very sane, because she knew when to QUIT! And she no doubt knows there is life beyond the Olympics.
I would love to see Simone Biles compete in the event finals next week, if that’s what she wants to do, and she is fully prepared to do it. But even if she doesn’t compete, I still think she should be commended for being wise. No medal is more important than a person’s life and health. I don’t have a concept of “the twisties” as a gymnast might. My body can’t do what their bodies do. But I do know what it feels like to be mentally unhinged, and I know how disorienting and scary that can be, even for someone who isn’t trying to defy the laws of physics. Simone Biles made the right decision and has served as an incredible role model, not just to budding gymnasts, but to anyone suffering with mental health issues. She is to be commended for taking care of herself and having the ability to say “No”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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