It took the lowest vault score of her Olympic gymnastics career for Simone Biles to seal her position as the greatest of all time. She gave up having others judge where she might place and put herself first.
Her approach to training has left behind the “no pain, no gain” mentality that has defined gymnastics for decades. She practices moderation.
After failing to land a vault she's been nailing in competitions since 2018, Biles’ withdrew from the women’s team finals Tuesday. Instead of throwing herself into the air to do a fully extended flip while also spinning around two and a half times, she landed after only having turned around one and a half times.
Initially there were conflicting reports as to why Biles retreated to the locker room. At first, announcers said it was a “mental health issue.” Later, USA Gymnastics — the governing body for the sport in the U.S. — put out a statement that it was a “medical issue.” (As someone with a mental health diagnosis, I feel obliged to point out that these terms are not mutually exclusive: Mental health is a medical concern.)
Biles has now clarified that the reason wasn’t physical. “Physically, I feel good, I’m in shape,” she told Hoda Kotb on the “TODAY” show. “Emotionally, that kind of varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being the head star isn’t an easy feat, so we’re just trying to take it one day at a time and we’ll see.” Whatever the specific reason turns out to be — and we may never find out exactly, which is also fine — Biles made the decision to take care of herself, saying that her struggle was "more mental, and we’re just dealing with a couple of things internally."
Until now, Biles has been so dominant that the drama that comes with live sports disappears into assurance from the announcers calling her events. Right before the last vault she performed, NBC’s John Roethlisberger advised viewers to delight in her perfection. “It doesn’t matter what vault she does, it’s a showstopper.”
When Biles then stumbled, a stunned Bridget Sloane observed, “It almost looks like she lost herself in the air.” Her decision to take herself out of the remaining events says, to me, that she found herself — and is exactly where she needs to be. I believe it takes more strength to throw off enormous expectations than it takes to live up to them.
We are used to athletic legends, and maybe Olympic legends in particular, springing from those athletes who “step up” and perform through injury and hardship. Kerri Strug landing on one leg to solidify a gymnastics team gold for Team USA in 1996. Tom Brady playing the entire 2020 NFL season with a torn MCL. And just Monday, Russian Artur Dalaloyan helping his team win the men’s gymnastics team gold despite having undergone Achilles tendon surgery a mere three months ago. During the qualifying rounds, his grimaces upon landing were impossible to ignore, though he told reporters this was not due to pain.
But behind the scenes, Biles has already been striking a course that emphasizes self-care over punishing repetitions. Her approach to training has left behind the “no pain, no gain” mentality that has defined gymnastics for decades. She practices moderation.
Those who remember the sidelines explosions of anger from coaches such as Bela Karolyi in years past might be surprised that Biles’ coaches don’t yell at her for minuscule mistakes. She posts evidence of her pleasure in eating pizza on social media rather than stealing food from the team kitchen, as she said she did while training at the Karolyi Ranch. Her insistence on treating herself humanely might have been the different sort of strength routine she needed to make the decision she did Tuesday.
Biles also wisely decided to take some time off after the Rio Olympics. No one would have begrudged her deciding to retire, but she came back. She is the only self-identified survivor of the horrific abuses team doctor Larry Nassar committed under the unwatchful eye of U.S. Gymnastics leadership who is still competing. Staying in the spotlight, she says, has been a way to keep pressure on the organization that failed so many women. But that decision unquestionably added to the pressure on her, and comes on top of the constant scrutiny that White America puts on Black female athletes in particular to be strong and stoic.
Biles entered this Olympics after an already wobbly start to the journey. In the Olympic trials, she fell off during her beam routine and barely missed falling off the uneven bars. Because she performs at such a high degree of difficulty, she still won the overall competition. She has made mistakes and had falls in the past, but she has always soldiered on. She has always rallied. This time, she did what she had to do — for herself.
Biles’ decision Tuesday stands out because, as has often been said, no one is tougher on Simone than she is. This has always sat uncomfortably with me. I have had to learn through hard experience that putting intense pressure on yourself isn’t that much healthier than trying to live up to others’ expectations. And I’m not even sure that it’s possible to truly exclude those outside demands in any case.
I don’t know what it’s like to have the eyes of the world on me or to be under the pressure that comes with having to defend being the greatest of all time. But I do know what it’s like to believe that what I have to offer doesn’t matter unless I hear an avalanche of praise. I know what it’s like to feel paralyzed by the fear of not being “good enough.”
When I've looked to Simone Biles for inspiration in the past, it’s been to acknowledge that she performs under even more pressure than I do, with an even more daunting criteria of excellence — and with a smile and irrepressible confidence. What I have thought is, “If she can do it, maybe I can do it, too.”
What she can help me remember now is my inherent worth just being a human in the world.
Biles’s unprecedented excellence is already an inspiration to millions to give their all in whatever they do; my hope is that now, millions know they can choose to not give their all when the pressure is on. Or to put that another way: Sometimes “giving your all” isn’t a show of strength on the outside; it’s what happens within.