In 1996, gymnast Kerri Strug vaulted her way to Olympic victory despite having gravely injured her ankle on her first attempt moments earlier. Anyone following the Olympics has probably seen this highlight, accompanied by the immense praise heaped on her for overcoming adversity and winning the gold for the United States. What I see is Kerri looking stoic, poised — and in pain. Though the crowd erupted in applause afterward, I feel sympathy for the athlete who put her team above her own health. And I feel empathy for Simone Biles, who had to put her health before her team.
Critics want to relegate Biles — who announced Saturday she was skipping at least two individual competitions after pulling out of the team and all-around finals — to being a quitter. They’ve attacked her as a “national embarrassment” and argued she should no longer be able to compete for USA Gymnastics. Not only do such comments seek to erase her hard work, they perpetuate the win-at-all-costs mentality that pushes people over their limits.
As a marathoner, I’ve seen how runners even at the amateur level push themselves to their breaking point even with no Olympic medals at stake. In fact, I’ve done that exact thing, and the outcome stole my love for a sport that was once cathartic and a means of escape.
While I’m not I’m not an elite athlete and never will be, I know now that nobody does themselves a favor by risking injury. In November of 2019, I ran the Philadelphia Marathon after several months of taxing training and exactly one month after spraining my ankle on an uneven sidewalk. This was my second marathon, and though I was cleared by my physical therapist to run the 26.2 mile race, I was ignoring how mentally exhausted I was from the extra training accompanied by the lowkey pain of an injury that I chalked up to weakness.
The day before my race, I rode the train to the race expo with two friends who were also competing. We spent too much money on memorabilia, then sat and listened to words of encouragement from marathon champions Des Linden and Meb Keflezighi. Everyone was caught up in their excitement and readiness, but I blurted out, “How am I going to run this race?”
Despite my doubts, I woke up at 3 a.m. to make it through security and get to the starting line before the gun went off at 7. I huddled with my friends in a circle so everyone could take turns peeing with some degree of privacy. We stretched and jumped in the air to get loose. We made sure our laces were tight and our playlists were just right. Then we took off, pacing ourselves to qualify for the upcoming Boston Marathon.
There’s a fine line between determination and insanity. It was not courageous for me to test myself like that. It was stupid.
By mile 10, though, something felt wrong. The underlying pain I’d ignored resurfaced in full force. My legs began to cramp at mile 13. I could have exited the race and found my family. Instead, I rounded the Philadelphia Museum of Art, high-fived Meb, posed for a photographer and powered through.
For the majority of the last 12.6 miles, I replayed a few thoughts: 1. My friends were far ahead of me, and they would certainly qualify for the Boston Marathon. 2. My family had come to see me cross the finish line and I couldn’t let them down. 3. I didn’t want all of my training to be for nothing. 4. Could I handle getting my first DNF, the marathon designation of did not finish?
These thoughts carried me through the cramps that would slow me from my usual 7:45 pace to a 10-minute mile -- and, at some points, to a walk. They carried me through the tears, seeing friends in slower heats pass me, my frozen hands and face, my tight legs. But I finished.
Afterward, I received calls and texts from people who’d seen me on the course. People noticed I’d been having a hard time and praised me for my grit and badassery. They — and I — were so convinced that the most important thing was to keep going. So many, myself included, were missing that there’s a fine line between determination and insanity. It was not courageous for me to test myself like that. It was stupid.
The culture of amateur athletics can be toxic, so I can only imagine what it’s like to be a professional competing on the world stage. Psychotherapist Akua Boateng explains how problematic this toxicity can be: “Oftentimes, athletes and others are socialized to push through physical and emotional barriers to succeed. While this is necessary when attaining new levels of accomplishment, it can also brew ideas of denying your own needs — mental and physical.”
I know that running isn’t gymnastics, and that a runner’s injuries can be career threatening but not life threatening. I haven’t flown through the air since the last time I did a triple jump. But I’ve always watched gymnastics, and I’ve seen how Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Dominique Dawes and an injured Kerri Strug have sprinted across the floor before sending their bodies into space, trusting their training to help them land on their feet instead of their heads.
Athletes are perfectionists, and for the pros, their livelihood depends on that perfectionism. Yet plenty of research points to deleterious effects from the constant pressure to excel. And for someone like Biles, not feeling mentally strong can mean mistakes that result in serious injury. “Biles shows us that nothing is greater than our life, which is controversial because it is presently counter culture,” Boateng notes. “Our desire to be successful mustn’t divorce us from understanding how to care for our humanity. ”
While I finished my marathon, I needed an entire month off to heal. It also took me at least a month before I could talk about my race without fearing that I’d burst into tears because of the memory of running through pain for so long. My mind wouldn’t be straight for quite awhile, and I sat watching my friends get faster and faster during lockdown while I struggled to get through 10 total miles on some weeks. Burnout is another consequence of pushing yourself to the max.
It’s been almost two years since my marathon, and I’m contemplating tackling Philadelphia again. This time, I’m paying attention to how my body and mind feel as I go along. I have no doubt that if I had listened to myself the last time, I’d be faster and stronger now — and I’d still be in love with running rather than just starting to warm up to it again. While I can’t speak for Biles, I wonder if bowing out will be what she needs to continue on with the sport that she’s loved since she was a child. We do know that, at the very least, she’s healthier, since she hasn’t left room for any injuries.