Some Compassion for Simone Biles

By Jessica Johnson

July 30, 2021 5 min read

"The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do."

This quote from Amelia Earhart begins the 12th chapter of Simone Biles' 2016 New York Times bestselling autobiography "Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, A Life in Balance." Biles could not have had a better year in 2016 as she won individual gold medals in the all-around, floor and vault competitions, as well as a U.S. team gold medal at the Rio Olympics. Prior to the Rio Games, she became the first female gymnast to win three consecutive all-around World Championship titles. Biles had cemented her legacy in gymnastics as the GOAT, or Greatest of All Time, heading into Tokyo this summer with a total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals, but when she pulled out of the team and individual all-around finals, her fiercest critics believed she had succumbed to paper tigers. In the minds of many, the GOAT isn't allowed to have an off-day, especially not on the global stage.

Watching Biles just before her dismount stumble at the end of her vault routine, the pensive look on her face was an indication that something didn't feel right with her. She did not display the confident, gorgeous smile we've grown accustomed to seeing as she has dazzled us with difficult, stunning moves named after her by the International Gymnastics Federation. When Biles cited mental health issues as the reason for her withdrawal from competition, the country was shocked with bitter, polarizing reactions. Many folks were quick to condemn her on social media as "selfish," "a quitter" and "a national embarrassment." Some piled on even more vitriol, declaring that Biles and her generation are "soft" and claiming that they don't have the grit or gumption to tough it out when things aren't going their way. First, pretty much all of Biles' Twitter haters don't have the glorious distinction of being the best in the world at their craft and have never been elite gymnasts with the breathtaking skillset to defy gravity and nail a Yurchenko double pike vault. Secondly, the fact that so many dismiss mental health concerns as trivial pouting by young people is also troubling. Biles has shared in past interviews that she takes anti-anxiety medication. Not being in the right state of mind while competing in Tokyo could have resulted in a serious injury to herself, and she would have hindered her teammates who have also worked tirelessly to showcase their talents at the Olympics.

Reading that Biles felt she had the "weight of the world" on her shoulders as the Olympics got underway, I thought about how she has referenced her faith as a rock of support in both good and bad times. In a 2017 CBN News interview, Biles talked about how her grandmother, Nellie Cayetano Biles, taught her how to pray and to acknowledge that God is the one who directs her life. "Some obstacles that we've had always work out for the better because God knows that without those you would not be as strong as you are," Biles said while reflecting on her disappointment in not making the U.S. Women's World Gymnastics team in 2011. I can't imagine the depth of distress Biles felt in making the decision not to continue in the all-around, but she centered most of her remarks to the media on the well-being of her teammates and not wanting to "risk the team a medal." Biles' comments were not surprising because in "Courage to Soar" she mentions how she has always prayed for the success of her teammates and that their Olympic dreams would come true. This is not the makeup of a selfish athlete.

Biles' fans are holding out hope that she will compete in the upcoming individual event finals. I was really looking forward to seeing her floor exercise, my personal favorite, and her uneven bars routine. However, if Biles decides to call it a career, it is obvious that she does not mind passing the torch to the next rising gymnastics star. She'll be ready for the new chapter in her life, and as she continues to lean on her faith in God, paper tigers don't have a chance.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: InspiredImages at Pixabay

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