Cower or Courage. What if?
When I began this blog, I made a list of topics I'd like to write about. On that list are these titles; Mental Toughness, Failure, and What gymnastics could teach the world if it would just listen. I've been writing a post about failure for weeks and haven't felt confident enough to share it. At one point, I thought about hitting "Publish" just to get it out there so I could stop thinking about it. Today, I'm sitting here having watched in complete shock, the United States Women's Gymnastics Team. Now, I'm really glad I didn't follow through on that premature send. I'll be honest, I have unpopular opinions about failure. But watching those women, my unpopular opinions are shifting slightly. The shift is not about changing my opinion as much as it is about seeing a different priority in the need to experience failure. This shift has set a fire to something I didn't realize I needed to write. There are so many factors to fear and failure. There are so many windows and doors to explore in an attempt to make sense. For fear of overwhelming myself and you, I'm going to share my thoughts in a series of posts. Stick with me! As promised though, I'll begin my thoughts on the Women's Gymnastics Team Final.
Simone Biles did something in this Olympics that will most certainly be talked about forever. What she did will also most certainly be viewed by many as a failure. If you are one of those viewers, listen up. You. Are. Wrong.
I watched the Women's Team Final live from my living room at 7:00am. I watched in complete shock and awe as I heard John Roethlisberger announce to the world, "Simone Biles has withdrawn from the competition." My hands began to shake in disbelief. My first thought was, "She's hurt!" Then as the minutes ticked by without address, it became clear. She WAS hurt, just not in the way we could SEE.
The next time you get out of your car in a parking lot, look down at the white line. Walk on top of it. Did your feet stay on? Now, try to jump up in the air with your feet landing right back on top. Could you do it? Now, imagine doing a flip. Not even the world's most difficult flip, just a plain cartwheel. How did that go? Now, look around. Do you have an audience?
Simone Biles has lived this in front of the entire world. She has done the most difficult skills anyone has ever seen with the constant knowledge of the billions of eyes on her. Not only does she have billions of eyes on her, but billions of their expectations too. Can you imagine your cartwheel in front of the world? Can you imagine that your cartwheel on the parking lot line has the ability to decide your self-worth? You can't. But Simone Biles knows exactly what that feels like.
Think about the most mortifying, embarrassing, hurtful and life altering moment of your life. I don't mean that one time you fell down a flight of stairs or that time you wore your shirt inside out to an important meeting. I mean that moment in your life which is a deep, dark secret because it is too painful to talk about. Was your family there to witness? Did you tell anyone? When you finally DID tell someone, what did their response make you feel?
Simone Biles lived THIS in front of the entire world too. She is a survivor of Larry Nassar's sexual abuse. She lived through the trauma of physical and emotional pain ON TOP OF the world's expectations of her. Not to mention, she did all of this without anyone knowing. I'm not going to ask you to imagine that. You can't. It's unimaginable.
There are so many other elements to add. We haven't forgotten about the Pandemic, right? An entire year of training was erased. They had to decide if it was worth it to keep going. When training at a professional level in a sport, this kind of change in plans is life altering. If you've never trained in gymnastics, let me share some insight. Unlike many other sports, gymnastics has no "off season." It is 365 days. For most high level gymnasts, 6 days a week for 365 days. Olympic gymnasts often train 6 days a week, several times a day for 365 days. They will have been on this training journey and schedule for at least a decade and a half by the time they make it to the big stage. They plan their goals sort of like a marathon runner. Having to adjust those goals by a year? Seems impossible.
My parents were always in the stands. Even if I didn't make eye contact, I would always search for them. Even though I knew there was nothing they could do, I knew they'd love me no matter what my gymnastics said about me. Finding them before a nervous moment was always comforting. Watching Simone stand on the podium before her vault, I noticed something she never seems to do. She looked up in the stands. Immediately, I recognized the emotion playing in her eyes, knowing who she was looking for and the sadness of the empty return of a comforting glance. There is no way the emptiness of visual support didn't add fuel to the spiral.
Possibly the heaviest element, which no one in the world but Simone can understand, is the weight of carrying an entire system and country on her shoulders. The IOC, International Gymnastics Federation, USAG and ALL of its athletes, coaches, staff and leadership. Again, it seems the world has forgotten, this is a pivotal time following arguably the most horrendous abuse in sports. Not to mention, Simone was a victim of the abuse herself. Simone told Hoda Kotb a reason for her return was that she believed if there was still a survivor on this year's team, USAG leadership would be held accountable to do something. My first thought after hearing her statement, "We don't deserve this woman." She gets it. She sees more than gold! She is GOLDEN without a gold medal. USAG leadership has done nothing but USE Simone Biles. They have not taken action to support her as a survivor. They have not had the credibility to fight for her skills to receive the credit she has earned. Some of you may even be thinking, "But we haven't heard anything about Larry Nassar in a while. I thought they'd handled it. He's in prison." Do you know why he is finally in prison? Not because USAG did anything. But because those survivors took matters into their own hands. Silence will always speak louder than words. Simone knows this better than anyone. So, when you have the weight of the world on your shoulders and it seems there is no relief from the pressure, what do you do? Personally, I'd take a nap. You might ask yourself, "What's the point?!" I believe this is what happened to Simone. And I have to tell you. I don't blame her. She's been let down, time and time again. She has been told, "No. You can't do that skill because no one else can." She never asked to carry the weight. She never said, "Yes, I'll do this all by myself." In fact, she asked for help. None was delivered. She had to find a way to get help all on her own. The silent message to Simone from leaders in the world of gymnastics has been; We need you. Just win. Just get through it. Just get the job done. Until today, she answered the let downs and silence by punching back with even more difficult skills and a medal count. Today, she chose to punch back and fight in a new way. I'm going to call it now. This fight has only just begun.
Gymnasts are built to be the. Most. Mentally. Tough. Human. Beings. In. The. World. Simone Biles is the most mentally tough human being ever. She has the proof. Let me remind you because some of you seem to have forgotten, she lived through physical sexual abuse AND the world's expectations AND won gold all at the same time. Now, she's showing us how BE gold in the ways that count most. There are still people who consider mental health, taboo. They are wrong. If the world's greatest and most mentally tough athlete succumbs to the struggle on the biggest stage, it's time to consider our own responsibility in making the stage too big. It's time to consider what truly matters. Yes, it is the Olympics. Yes, those athletes choose to put themselves through the process in hopes of reward. Yes, they commit to representing their countries. They also commit to integrity and moral principles in the journey. These athletes take an oath of commitment, We promise to take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules and in the spirit of fair play, inclusion and equality. Together we stand in solidarity and commit ourselves to sport without doping, without cheating, without any form of discrimination. We do this for the honour of our teams, in respect for the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, and to make the world a better place through sport.
I'll leave you a moment to gather your own thoughts on this oath.
Cower or Courage. Simone has chosen Courage every step of the way. In the elation of skills, she chose courage to commit to medal success. In the avalanche of expectations, she chose to courageously embrace them. In the wake of abuse and chaos of scandal, she chose courage and used her voice. In the Olympic Team Final when Simone chose to withdraw, she chose courage. Not only did she choose courage for herself, she chose courage for her teammates and the world. Some people will want to argue, "If she wasn't ready she shouldn't have gone." "If she didn't feel at her best, she should have let someone else go." I've also read some twitter trolls who believe Simone should have just fought through it anyway. I don't think you comprehend what she's up against. This was a lose-lose situation for her. No matter what she did, there would be let down. No matter what she did, someone would make it her fault. At some point, you have to let go. Like she said, "It is unfortunate it happened at the Olympics."
Here is another important point, which in my opinion is the most practical to understand, yet the one people want to focus on. "Why couldn't she just power through? She's certainly physically strong enough." The level of skills Simone does, you don't just power through. Powering through in the sport of gymnastics and especially in Simone's case, is gravely dangerous. Go back and watch her vault in slow motion. You can see the moment of panic when she loses her sight and awareness in the air. Her eyes widen. Her head and mind are going one way, while her body is fighting to go the opposite. Remember a time you've ridden a roller coaster. There's an adrenaline rush of being somewhat out of control, but you know the equipment is going to slow down and bring you back to ease. It is a similar feeling for a gymnast flying through the air, but without the knowledge of making it back to ease. YOU are the equipment, solely responsible for your own safety. When I first watched the live broadcast, there wasn't much information about what was happening as the program moved on to show the other teams competing. In NBC's Primetime, we got to see Simone immediately following her missed vault. Knowing what would eventually happen somehow made watching it again worse. The look on her face brought me to tears. All I saw was panic and fear. All the work. All the pressure came to a crashing halt and was written so clearly in her eyes. She was staring blankly at the words and the realization. She was staring at a life altering decision about failure. Then she mouthed the words, "I don't trust myself." She recognized the gravity. She recognized the weight. Being responsible for her own safety looked like saying, "No. I will not kill myself for this." Many will recognize this as failure. Having lived through my own experiences of sole responsibility for my own safety I am here to tell you, she did NOT fail. She WON a fight no one cared to cheer her through. She won that battle all by herself. Like I said before, this fight has only just begun.
For now, I'm going to move on to what happened after Simone withdrew. The opposite side of failure. Determination. Grit. Fire. Joy. So many disagreed with the decision to place Grace McCallum in the fourth team member spot. I agreed she was the appropriate choice. I won't explain my reasoning today because its not important. As Simone is telling her teammates, "I'm sorry. But it is okay. You are fine. You can do this. I've had my turn. It is your turn." Grace McCallum was the one to break the ice. As Jordan and Suni are standing in shock, Grace embraced Simone in a hug as if to say, "Okay. We've got your back. We've got this." I cried. I was so proud of Grace. Simone needed someone to comprehend. She needed someone to take the baton and the next step. She needed Grace to take the next step and Grace delivered a hug and gritty bar routine. She was a true teammate and she did her job. Jordan, connecting the dots, did the bar and beam routines of her life in a fury of panic. Yet, pure determination. I have loved watching Suni Lee grow and improve through her own struggles and injuries in the last few years. Knowing her story and watching her fill the arena with massive gymnastics is inspiring. I also have a special attachment to her because she is going to be an Auburn Tiger! In the face of adversity, she competed with the fire and confidence of a tiger! In the immediate aftermath of realization that Simone wouldn't continue, Simone said something else. "If you need something, just let me know and I'll get it." I cried, again! I could tell as she was saying the words to her teammates, she was saying them to herself too. She needed to take her own next step. Watching her cheer for her teammates. Watching her grab chalk buckets and tape. Watching her stress and do the motions of Jordan's beam routine right along with her. Watching her jump as high in the air as she does flips in celebration for her teammates. I saw joy. A joy that said, "Okay, no matter what happens, I'm happy. No matter what happens now, I am content in my decision. I am relieved to relinquish the pressure and enjoy being a teammate." That type of joy can never be replaced by a medal. That type of joy can never be taken from her. The opposite side of failure. Determination. Grit. Fire. Joy.
Lastly, for now. What if? Everybody LOVES to use this question to fuel doubt and failures. What if, Team USA had chosen different team members? What if, Simone had taken herself out of the running sooner? What if, Mykayla or Jade had taken her spot for the team? What if, Jordan hadn't fallen on floor? What if, Team USA had still gotten the gold? What if?
How about this. What if, Larry Nassar had never been allowed the safety and security of secrecy in those training rooms? What if, the parents of those athletes had been allowed space to get through to their girls and help their voices? What if, USAG had taken responsibility for the scandal? What if, the IOC and Gymnastics Federation had stood up for Simone when her own country's system failed her? What if, their silence had been awakened by action? What if, WE stopped putting such immense pressure on the shoulders of our athletes? What if, we saw them as human beings rather than superheroes? What if, WE adjusted our own expectations? What if, we would just listen to Simone? What if, we created opportunities for our children to find the opposite of failure, supporting their safety? What if, we guided them in the way of finding self-worth in the things that matter? What if?