SPOILERS: Olympic gymnasts ladies team competition (in case it hasn’t aired wherever you live)
[Note: I blog for fun, and I’m certainly not a professional journalist by any stretch; and I don’t have word-for-word quotes on hand here, but the last thing I want to do is misrepresent any Olympians, so I tried to quote them as accurately as possible based on what I remember they saying.]
That was hard to watch.
I could tell Simone Biles was tired a year ago when the Olympics were postponed due to the coronavirus, and she was stressed by it. She said something about how hard it would be to keep working alongside USA Gymnastics for yet another year. (This is the organization that allegedly looked the other way while everyone was being molested.) (They’ve ousted the evil Karolyis, and good riddance, but they’ve got a lot more to answer for.)
She’s been uncertain all year in the competitions leading up to the Olympics. In the qualifying event of the Olympics, which aired two days ago, she made mistakes but still qualified for every event due to her routines’ high level of difficulty and accompanying high start value.
And then in today’s team competition, in which she was meant to lead the team to Gold medal victory, she was warming up for the vault when she landed badly and did a full forward somersault on the mat. That goes above and beyond the sort of error you’d expect to see. Then when performing her vault for the judges, she–from all accounts–spaced out midair, did one too few rotations, and landed really low on her legs. She apparently lost her position in the air and her awareness of her body’s location in space. Huh.
While watching this I was aware of the futility of feeling pressure to be perfect. It’s not possible. No athlete is a machine. There’s always going to be a mental game as well as a physical game.
The commentors rewound the tape and showed us what she said to her coach, which the commentors picked up via lip-reading: “I don’t feel that I trust myself.”
She left the floor after said vault, which was scandalous. I read a book as a kid about gymnasts, and in the book you were never allowed to leave the floor due to emotional reasons. Like, your coach would get really mad. I don’t know how accurate that fictional portrayal was, but of course I’ve heard worse things, too, a la the aforementioned Karolyis.
Then Simone returned and told her teammates she was out but wanted to support them in their efforts. It worked out that three athletes were supposed to perform each apparatus, and with Simone gone, that’s how many were left on Team USA.
Jordan Chiles, a good friend and training partner of Simone (the commentors were calling them “Biles and Chiles”), seemed thrilled to death by the news that she’d now be competing in every remaining apparatus. Her attitude seemed to be, Simone’s out, and now’s my time to shine. I felt like she could’ve been a bit more discreet about her feelings. She was literally giddy with glee and doing a funky dance. Of course, this attitude came to bite her in the booty when she did her floor routine and fell all over the place. She was too damned giddy about her friend Simone’s predicament to focus on her floor routine! And gymnastics is all about the focus. Good grief.
Needless to say, Team USA didn’t win the gold medal, but they did take the silver. That’s pretty great.
Anyway, back to Simone. None of us watching had a clue what was wrong except for insinuations that it was her mental game (and possibly her mental health?) that had prompted her to withdraw. Her coach admitted that nothing was physically wrong with her.
Simone was onhand to give support to her teammates, and she was also eager to hug the winning team. She was acting normal and very graceful, given the circumstances. She didn’t seem to be having a nervous breakdown, but I was worried. Nothing she’d done was adding up to me.
Afterward, she said that she’d been stressed, and that earlier that day after training, they’d all had to wait five-and-a-half hours. That made me sad, as the Olympics should be a special experience that shouldn’t render you exhausted or leave you short of sleep. She said she’s been dealing with a lot and has had a lot on her mind. The commentor, Nastia Liukin (a former Olympic gymnast), said that when gymnasts get spaced out (or whatever she called it), it can be dangerous to perform their routines. I don’t doubt it. Nastia said it happens at times to all gymnasts. (I guess they all hope it won’t happen at the Olympics! AAUGH.)
Simone said that mental health is important in sports and needs to be prioritized. She said that it’s okay to sit out an important meet if your mental game isn’t on. I admire that.
She said in an earlier interview about the molestation disaster that when it happened to her, she compartmentalized it and couldn’t cope with it for a while. Then she and her grandma/mom cried. (She was raised by her grandmother.) I got a similar sense seeing her on the floor tonight that she was stressed, spaced out, and elsewhere; but what’s really amazing is that she proactively took herself out of the competition instead of risking loss of life or limb. It shows amazing strength of character to acknowledge when you’re having an awful day and to throw in the towel, even at the Olympics, where no one wants to have an off day!
In that same interview, she said she’s stayed with the sport in order to enforce the changes needed in light of the Karolyis’ corrupt treatment of gymnasts. Simone said she has a huge social media presence and wants to use it to protect current and future gymnasts from being molested and otherwise mistreated.
One thing I hate about this sort of competition is that it forces you to be “on” all the time. Instead of scoring everyone’s personal best, you’ve got to perform it under pressure. It would be different with, say, a writing contest where you submit something you wrote in your own time. And that aspect of competing seems brutal to me because it’s impossible to be perfect. Simone said, “We should be able to go out there and have fun, but my head wasn’t in the game.” I’m glad it’s fun! It looks like Medieval torture to me, but I agree that it should be enjoyed. I was really impressed that she pulled out to protect her best interests while still cheering for her teammates.