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”.