This week was not the first time I watched Simone Biles in action and thought “Wow, I wish I could do that!” It was, however, the first time I thought I might actually be able to. I myself am a writer, making me the natural opposite of an athlete. As I slump in front of my laptop and watch her flip and twist and fly through the air, I am dazzled. But when she tells a barrage of cameras and microphones that she is withdrawing from the women’s team final mid-competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games to focus on her mental wellbeing? I am awe-struck. I sit up immediately and listen carefully to what she says, on her social media and during press conferences, and I learn over and over that you’re allowed to step back when you need to. I see from her demeanour that it’s an extremely difficult thing to do, but that it is possible. No matter how much pressure you’re under you can simply state your needs, make your health a priority and fundamentally not feel you must do what everyone else wants you to do. Forget about the Yurchenko double pike vault, it is that move – the defensive retreat, the protective step back – that wins her all of my medals.
Of course that’s a corny thing to say, and in any case I don’t have any medals except a battered one from my summer of 93 read-a-thon. Besides, Simone Biles stopped needing to win medals to prove her greatness a long time ago, although that has not stopped her from winning them. During the 2019 World Championships she won five gold medals and became the most decorated gymnast in World Championship history. She is a once in a lifetime athlete, perhaps the best there’s ever been. Even in all this week’s furore, herself and her team won silver medals, an achievement as much hers as her three team-mates. The others were extremely clear on that, with one of her teammates, Jordan Chiles stating: “But at the end of the day, we did though,” she said. “This medal was definitely for her because if it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be here where we are right now.”
Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Earlier in the week, Biles posted: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.” She feels that way for good reason. None of us know what is occurring in her personal life or in her inner life, but we do know what is happening on the outside. At a time of great stress and sadness and change for the most average among us, Biles faces huge pressures unique to only her – nobody else. So who better than her to know the best way to cope? “I have to focus on my mental health. I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now … we have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do.” What the world wants her to do as a young black woman, as an athlete, as a star, is to entertain and thrill and redeem them all at once. An impossible feat but a seductive one; a combination that could all too easily drive you to madness.
In an NPR interview last month the Washington Post sports writer Liz Clarke spoke about how ephemeral a gymnast’s career typically is, how rare it is for them to make two Olympic cycles the way Simone Biles has. And she predicted the following: “What we will see in Tokyo is Simone beating Simone of 2016. She is coming with far more difficult elements and doing them better than ever. So she is – she was in her own realm, and she’s ignoring the rest of the world. And she’s improving on Simone at this point.” I believe that is exactly what is happening. This is Simone Biles, a whole person – not a robot, not a symbol, not a screen for us to project on to. By nourishing herself she will continue to live and grow and be joyful and be challenged long after this noise around her has stopped, because she knows to return to herself and knows that “we have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do.” My heart soars just imagining how much anguish will be sidestepped by girls and women who pay attention to this instruction!
When Jordan Chiles spoke up for Simone Biles and said she deserved her medal as much as anyone else on the team, the part that really got me was when she said, “So kudos to you, girlie, this is all for you!” I mean, what a beautiful thing to say and to mean! And what a beautiful thing to have love and community there for you unconditionally, with no need to perform, to win, to achieve anything in order to earn it. To exist in all our inevitable frailty and be loved for it, or even because of it? What a rarely spoken and precious thing I have learned from the heroic Simone Biles and her teammates in Tokyo, right on time in this strange and frightening year.