book reviews, sports

A review of Feel No Fear: The Power, Passion, and Politics of a Life in Gymnastics by Bela Karolyi and his ghostwriter, Nancy Ann Richardson…

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. In those days, it 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. And so, it made sense that Bela would share his story to 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 with, 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 the 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. He was born in Romania on September 13, 1942, the second child of an engineer father and his mild mannered wife. He also had an 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, who had been a gymnast in high school, and was also studying physical education. The two were a love match, and they got married.

The story/legend continues, much as I’ve seen it depicted in movies like Nadia

I watched this movie on TV years ago. It was made in 1984. Kerri Strug wrote in her book that she watched it many times. Nadia herself once said that this movie was “pure fiction”, but Bela Karolyi’s book indicates that this movie is pretty accurate. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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 reading this article. It made Nadia sound like a bulimic tramp.

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 aftermath 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 insane 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, she stuck her vault, but at what price? And isn’t she very lucky that she didn’t tragically 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.

The Karolyis defend themselves.

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.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

Standard
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.

Standard
mental health

The “twisties”… a world class gymnast is smart enough to know when to QUIT!

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.

Dominique Moceanu knows Simone’s struggle.

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.

A memorial video for Elena Mukhina someone posted on YouTube.

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.

A memorial video someone made for Julissa Gomez.

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.

You can see Christy shake her head after a disastrous tumbling pass. The commentators say she looks “tired”. It turns out she was actually starving herself.

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.

It turned out that Kerri didn’t even have to do this… the American team had enough points to win the gold without the second vault.

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.

Moceanu miraculously avoids falling off the beam after missing a skill.

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.

Connie Chung asked Sang Lan if she knew the vault was “all wrong” when she was in the air. Lan said she knew. She must have had “the twisties”, too.

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.

Poor Kim. She was only 16 years old… and she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.

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.

Kristie’s foot went out of bounds on her floor exercise, shattering her Olympic dream.
Kristie tells Oprah Winfrey how she felt after she didn’t make the Olympics.

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”.

Standard
book reviews

A review of Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, by John Barr and Dan Murphy

I just finished my fourth book about former doctor turned sex pest, Larry Nassar. This one, entitled Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, was written by John Barr and Dan Murphy, two very experienced reporters who have both worked for ESPN. ESPN, for my non-American readers, is a very well respected and long established all sports cable television channel. Not surprisingly, this book about Larry Nassar’s crimes is the best researched of the four I’ve written so far. It’s also extremely well-written.

Since this is my fourth review about this topic, I’m not going to go too much into detail what Larry Nassar did. By now, we all know that he sexually molested hundreds of women under the guise of providing them “medical treatment”. He was labeled a genius– doctor to gymnastic stars– and his office was littered with photos and autographs of famous young women athletes he’d “helped” with his controversial pelvic floor treatments. His victims included people such as Simone Biles, and every single one of the “Fierce Five” gymnastics team that competed at the London Summer Olympic Games in 2012. But they also included people were comparative “nobodies”, like Rachael Denhollander, who was interviewed extensively for this book, as well as past stars like Tasha Schwikert and Jamie Dantzscher, and even a very young friend of Nassar’s family, Kyle Stephens, who was not an athlete.

Barr and Murphy conducted many interviews to gather material for this book, but they really concentrated on Rachael Denhollander’s and Jamie Dantzscher’s stories. I have already read and reviewed Denhollander’s own book, What is A Girl Worth?, also an excellent read. But what made Start by Believing even better than Denhollander’s book was that the journalists also shared Jamie Dantzscher’s story. I remembered watching Dantzscher, strangely enough, when she was on an ESPN gymnastics special back in 1997. I remember I was fresh from Armenia, staying at my eldest sister’s house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and I turned on the TV to see the most famous gymnasts of the day flipping and tumbling to rock music.

The first time I remember ever seeing 2000 Olympian, Jamie Dantzscher…

I was too busy with graduate school during the 2000 Sydney Olympics to watch Dantzscher go for the gold. I later read that the women’s gymnastics team had a rather poor showing there. China was awarded the bronze medal ahead of them, but it later came out that the Chinese team had broken some rules which stripped them of their team medal for women’s gymnastics. The U.S. team was later awarded the bronze medal ten years after the fact. I also didn’t know that Jamie Dantzscher had been forced out of the competition. Her very large family had scrimped and saved to come to Australia to see her perform, all for naught. As they were enjoying their time Down Under, Jamie’s father, John, and sister, Jennifer, were broadsided by a bus while running an errand. Jennifer suffered cuts and bruises, but John Dantzscher was badly hurt to the point at which it was feared he would die. He spent weeks in a Sydney hospital before he could go back to California to relearn everything that made him independent. Years later, Jamie’s sister, Jennifer, died from asthma related causes.

It turns out Jamie Dantzscher is a Latter-day Saint. However, she apparently uses a lot of foul language and is unusually outspoken. During the 2000 Olympics, she came under fire for criticizing famed women’s gymnastics coach, Bela Karolyi, calling him a “puppeteer”. She was also one of the very first women to take legal action against Larry Nassar, although she did so anonymously at first. Barr and Murphy did a great job of sharing Jamie Dantzscher’s brave story. I came away from their book with more respect and admiration for Jamie than I previously had.

The authors also share Rachael Denhollander’s story, which, because I had already read her book, felt a little like a rerun. However, had I not read What is a Girl Worth?, I think I would have really appreciated how Barr and Murphy explained her situation. To a lesser extent, the authors share the stories of a wide array of gymnasts who were victimized by Larry Nassar, and they explain how Nassar was able to get away with his crimes for as long as he had. Larry Nassar is a world class manipulator who used every trick in the book to get people to trust him and believe in what he was doing, even when the abuse was obvious and had been reported for years before his career fell into a shambles and he lost the right to freedom.

Maybe I should be angry and horrified reading books about Larry Nassar’s sex crimes, but when I read Start By Believing, I felt an odd sense of power and pride for the victims who became victors. This book is about brave women who came forward to bring a monster to justice, many of whom eventually became friends in the process. I often like to say that something good comes out of almost every situation. Despite Larry Nassar’s despicable acts of abuse against women, many of the women involved in this case have formed a kind of sisterhood. And they all got to watch their abuser FINALLY meet justice. Frankly, as someone who has also been repeatedly screwed over and abused by other people, I found it an unusually empowering and inspiring read.

I also liked the fact that Barr and Murphy had clearly read a lot of other, earlier books about the abuses suffered in gymnastics. They specifically mention Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, by Joan Ryan, Chalked Up, by Jennifer Sey, and Off Balance, by Dominique Moceanu. I have read all three of these books, and though Sey and Moceanu were not victimized by Larry Nassar, they were both elite gymnasts who suffered abuse from their coaches. Joan Ryan was a sports reporter in San Francisco before her book about the celebrated abuses in women’s gymnastics and figure skating exploded in 1995. All three books are outstanding, and well worth reading. I especially enjoyed the life stories, because even when they are about a common topic, like abuse in gymnastics, there are interesting side stories. Dominique Moceanu, for instance, is the daughter of Romanian immigrants who had escaped Nicholai Ceausescu’s horrifying regime. Jennifer Sey is about my age, and I can relate to what it was like for her to grow up in the 70s and 80s, when parents were a hell of a lot less hands on and obsessed with safety as they are now.

And finally, Barr and Murphy include several interesting color photos. The one that made me stop and pause the longest was the picture of several tiny gymnasts pushing former coach, John Geddert, in his blue Corvette as part of their athletic training. Geddert was well known for his aggressive, abusive tactics to get his women to win, but I had no idea that he’d employed making them push him in his very expensive sports car. Talk about an asshole!

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading about Larry Nassar’s crimes, I think I would put Start By Believing at the top of the required reading list. In fact, I think it’s my favorite of the four books I’ve read so far, followed closely by Rachael Denhollander’s book, because Start By Believing is so comprehensive, extremely professionally written, yet very engaging, and it’s so well-researched. Highly recommended with five stars!

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon from sales made through my site.

Standard