Simone Biles is accustomed to making history. Widely considered the greatest US gymnast of all time, she is usually celebrating victory and breaking records. But last week she made headlines for a rather different reason after withdrawing from several events (including the women’s all-round final, individual vault, uneven bars, and floor) to protect her mental health. This morning, there was better news when it was announced that Simone Biles will compete in the women’s balance beam final on Tuesday.
The decision to withdraw, however, came after her “terrifying” performance of the Yurchenko vault, featuring 1.5 rather than the anticipated 2.5 twists, which concluded with a stumble forward. Elite athletes said it was a miracle she landed on her feet. Granted, it is a notoriously difficult skill, and one historically confined to men’s gymnastics, but it was still an uncharacteristic error.
Biles’s withdrawal, no matter how laudable, did not conform to the extraordinary trajectory of her career. The 24-year old has already racked up six Olympic medals and was predicted to double that number at this year’s games.
Keyboard warriors (whose athleticism was likely limited to dexterous fingers) were quick to label her a “quitter” and a “snowflake”. Anyone with an ounce of gymnastics experience, however, understands that she is anything but – though there are perhaps two ways in which she does resemble the latter.
The first is in her uniqueness. Biles has reshaped this 2,000-year-old sport, developing four new skills. Judges have had to tear up the rule book to be able to even classify them. The second is her ability to withstand harsh conditions – a theme which emerged in the recent #gymnastalliance movement, where gymnasts from across the globe shared traumatic stories of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. This is something supported by Louis Smith, retired British gymnast, who described a “culture of fear” within the sport.
As a former child gymnast, I understand a small fraction of what Biles will have endured in training; gymnastics is a sport forged by blood, sweat and tears. First came hours upon hours of puberty-stunting conditioning. Then the eye-watering pain of muscle contortion, where fully grown adults sat on my back to stretch my limbs beyond natural limits. Later I was told to “suck it up” as the swift rotation of wooden bars caused my palms to rip to shreds and bleed.
With such practices being commonplace, it is no surprise that the NSPCC set up a dedicated hotline for survivors of gymnastic abuse. In my previous job as a child-protection social worker, I saw that such harm endured by a child in any other context would lead to an investigation under the Children Act 1989.
Growing up, I used to think resilience equated to pain endurance. I was prepared to sacrifice safety for success. Overtime I became a shell, both figuratively and literally. As coaches berated gymnasts for growing breasts and curves, I did all I could to remain child-like, developing body dysmorphia. But I discovered that no amount of sit-ups or meal-skipping would help me reach perfection.
Like many gymnasts, I began to see myself in a one-dimensional light. My worth as a human being clung to how well I performed in routines which lasted minutes, if not seconds.
Biles is the role-model I desperately needed, but never had. Back then, boundaries were an alien concept. I was taught to submit to unreasonable and dangerous requests. To accept other people entering my personal space, and to keep training long after my body gave clear signs it could not go on.
But Biles has demonstrated that strength lies not in how hard we push ourselves physically, but how well we take care of the only body and mind we have. She has given young gymnasts a clear message: that it is OK to put yourself first. That not only is it OK, but it can be potentially lifesaving.
What many armchair critics fail to understand is the well-established link between mental wellbeing and physical performance. When Biles spoke out about having a case of “the twisties”, she wasn’t pulling the word out of thin air. It is a term describing a mental block causing gymnasts to lose track of space and orientation, something which can have serious consequences while flipping on a 4in-wide beam, or running full-speed toward a tumble-pass.
It is a feeling I know well. Once, a skill I had perfected over years, and even committed to muscle memory, became lost as I hurtled toward a vault. My body betrayed my mind. Without the quick-thinking actions of a coach, I would have fallen head-first onto the un-matted area of concrete below.
For anyone, the pressure of living up to a “superhuman” reputation would be hard to bear; but for Biles, the intersectionality of being a young Black woman magnifies this. There are many who are eager to see her fail. It is no coincidence that the most vocal critics on her decision to step back from some events have attacked from a place of white male privilege (despite gymnastics being a topic they are painfully unqualified to discuss). That her decision can be so openly ridiculed highlights the fact that Black women’s mental health is still not taken seriously.
Biles is in a bind; if she wins, she is criticised. Back in 2013, her nascent career was already overshadowed by racist abuse when, after becoming world champion, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito said: “Next time we’ll paint our skin black so we can win.” This week’s events prove that the same applies when she does not.
But there is hope. With such a role model, the next generation may be better informed. Unlike my former self, they will know that true strength lies in understanding when to say no.
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