An Open Letter to Simone Biles After Winning the Bronze on Beam
It can't be easy to be the GOAT.
The last few weeks were rough, weren't they? Rough for gymnastics fans everywhere who have watched your 2021 Olympics struggle yes, but more importantly for you: an incredibly talented young woman with a dream and the chops to pull it off finding your body and mind unable to cooperate during one of the most important competitions of your life.
I have followed national and Olympics gymnastics closely since I watched Kerri Struger vault on an injured ankle in 1996, seemingly cinching an American gold. I was four and from collecting every gymnastics Barbie doll that Mattel released to begging my mom to sign me up for tumbling (it was short-lived), I spent the better part of my childhood gymnastics obsessed. And while my childhood Olympic dreams were not to be realized due to uncurable clumsiness and an absolute opposition to all things sweat, my interest in the sport has carried over into adulthood. Every four years, I settle in with my family to watch the events and live vicariously through athletes in their prime performing seemingly inhuman feats while they inspire, awe, and impress us all.
Everyone who follows collegiate, world, and Olympics gymnastics has had our favorites over the years. Shawn Johnson, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, and Kaitlyn Ohashi have been just a few of my favorites over the years. But then you came along, Simone. You performed flips and tricks that defy human ability and reason.
Every little girl saw your sparkly leotards and incredible floor routines and wanted to be you. Every adult woman saw how you spoke out on behalf of yourself and others against your abuser and we admired and respected you. And as you announced that you were training for the 2020 Olympics, we all assumed that you would have gold medal after gold medal in the bag, cinching America's place for another Olympics in the best of the best across most every event...a source of inspiration, of national pride, a heroine we could point out to our daughters and say "that's Simone Biles...she's unbeatable!"
But then, disaster seemed to strike. I read the headlines and watched the replay of your vault attempt in the team all-around. I saw your run leading up to the vault and the look of fear on your face...and then your face crumpling as you landed a vault that was below your usual level of skill. Walking off the mat holding back tears. I noticed all of this because it is all too familiar to me.
While I can't imagine the pressure that you are facing as the young woman who is widely recognized as the world's greatest gymnast, probably even the greatest of all time, I have been in high pressure situations where I felt like everyone was depending on me. More than once. And now as a mostly mature adult and mother, I could see all of the emotions you went through as they played out on my screen and I really just wanted to reach through the TV and give you a big hug.
I never even came close to making an elite athlete. Sports really aren't my thing. But in high school, I landed on an activity that was very much my thing when I found competitive debate. I wasn't the best at it, nothing like you and your natural talent, but I worked hard through high school to scholarship into a college debating program.
Like gymnastics, the world of elite debating is competitive and comes with its own set of rules, its own norms, its own little sub-culture. When I began competing at the college level, I desperately wanted to be among the best of the best. My partner and I worked our way up through posting wins at tournaments that were more and more challenging until we were widely considered one of the best debating duos that our state had to offer. When we decided to make the jump from regional to national tournaments, everyone expected great things but the difference in difficulty was great and the pressure intense and we (specifically: me) flopped over and over and over again.
In debate rounds where I wanted to cry, I kept a straight face and did my best. On tournament mornings when I would wake up too nauseous to function, I would calmly puke and get ready for a day of competition. And I wasn't the only one. These were just the things that are unspoken yet widely expected in the debate community. We had to take our losses, our hard knocks, if we ever wanted to be great.
I fought and clawed my way to a respectable spring season finish my senior year of college, but after my last debate tournament was over, I felt only relief. Relief that part of my life was done. Thankful for the abiding friendships I made, but glad I no longer had to face a broader debate community that could often be dangerous and toxic for its members.
I stuck it out through hardships, discomfort, fears, challenges. I mean I wasn't flipping ten feet in the air. But a lot was riding on my ability to perform. Our program reputation and continued funding not the least of them. Although not many could relate directly to the pressure you felt thanks to media hype and millions of adoring fans, I know what it feels like to be a young person with a dream who feels like they have the weight of the world on them. Or at least, the weight of their world.
And that's why I was so glad to see you take a step back. Admitting that you can't go on is uncommon enough in our culture that there were thousands of articles written and news reports about your decision to pull out of the individual all-around. And then as you withdrew from most of the individual event finals, the media frenzy continued, and it seemed like everyone had an opinion about it...and about you. It's like every comment, every social media post, and every facial expression was under a magnifying glass for the world to examine.
I for one want to commend you for taking a lesson that so many young people should learn early on to heart: taking care of your needs, listening to your mind and body, and understanding when you can't go one step further is healthy. It is important. It should be more widely accepted. It is the first step towards regaining your mental and often physical health.
I didn't learn this lesson until just recently. Long past my college debating years, I was a middle school teacher in a unique laboratory school at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. I was in a role that I absolutely loved, I was working sixteen hours a day and actually enjoying it, signing up for extra trainings into the weekend and summer, and spending every waking minute thinking about teaching and how to be a better teacher. Maybe a little like you do about your gymnastics.
As the pandemic worsened and as schools all across the world were thrown into chaos, the pressure and anxiety grew to be too much to cope with. I was no longer enjoying what I did for a living. I woke up in the mornings with a sense of dread. I had panic attacks. I tried to put on a happy face for the students, but the truth is that I was not well. Finally, in the middle of the first semester, with a lot of people depending on me and expecting me to be great, I quit.
It came as a shock for many I think. I was always the person who seemed to have it together. But inside, I didn't have it together at all. And despite knowing what everyone's expectations were, despite feeling like I was letting people down, despite berating myself and blaming myself for things that were largely out of my control, I had to walk away. For me.
I spent a long time not ok, because it was heartbreaking. I cried a lot. I spent a lot of time in bed. I felt bad for many months after everyone else moved on.
But things got better. And they will for you, too. In fact, you're already on your way with a beautiful bronze medal on beam and the world cheering you on!
All of that to say, even though you may feel like you're all alone in the world, there are many billions of others who have faced defeating situations. While most of them do not share your international platform and do not have to cope with setbacks in such a public way, anyone who has had to face down fear and overwhelming anxiety can recognize what you went through and are now healing from. I'm here to tell you, for whatever it's worth, that you did the right thing. I know that was one of the most difficult things you have ever had to do, and I admire you all the more for giving yourself the greatest gift and saying, "Not me. Not today."
And it does get better. Whether you stick with performing gymnastics or move on to coaching or leave the sport entirely for something that excites you and lights a new fire in you, I can promise that the best is yet to come...and your fans are behind you. No matter what you choose to do, we're with you every step of the way.
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