We need to honor the fact that Simone Biles is human, despite her 'superhuman' abilities

Like the rest of the Western hemisphere, I woke up this morning to the surprising news that gymnastic superstar Simone Biles had backed out of the Olympic team finals after an uncharacteristically bad vault performance. After some conflicting reports about a possible injury, it became clear that she was physically fine—it was her mental state that had gotten twisted.

Cue the armchair commentators complaining that she had let the team down, that she's only concerned about herself, and that she shouldn't have gone into the competition if she didn't have the mental toughness to handle it.

Hoo boy. Let's all just take a deep breath and step back for a second.


We've seen the superstar athletes, the stand-outs, the GOATS before—but none of them have been Simone Biles. I mean that in a figurative sense as well as a literal one. She's her own individual being, but she's also a stand-out among GOATs.

Biles hasn't just dominated her sport for the past decade; she's single-handedly pushed the sport to places no one has ever seen. She's done things no other female gymnast has even attempted, much less succeeded at. Michael Phelps may have dominated in swimming with gold medals, but his individual feats were fractional advancements in the sport (sometimes beating records by fractions of a second), not gigantic leaps to where no athlete in the field had gone before. Judges haven't even figured out how to score her. Biles' accomplishments have been mind-blowing.

What that kind of dominance does to a person mentally is unique, especially when it's happening in the era of social media bombardment. The reality is that no other human being on the planet knows what it feels like to walk—or miraculously defy gravity—in Biles' shoes.

Biles has repeatedly been called superhuman, unbeatable, unstoppable. She has been called not just the greatest gymnast in the world, but the greatest athlete in the world. And unlike in the past, when public commentary or criticism came from people with some knowledge of a sport and access to a television broadcast, millions of people now constantly pour out their opinions about star athletes on social media. How many times have seen Simone Biles' name "trending"? That does something to a person, even if they try to ignore it.

Michael Jordan has talked about how he doesn't know if he would have survived the social media era, and many athletes have talked about the toll today's media environment takes on them mentally. For Biles to have risen to and maintained her GOAT status at the height of this era is a whole new world. None of us—literally none of us—has any idea what it's like to be her.

Obviously, you don't get to where Simone Biles is without extraordinary mental toughness. A woman on an eight-year winning streak, who has won 30 Olympic and World Championship medals (now 31, with the team silver in Tokyo), clearly does not have issues handling pressure.

But every human being has limits, and our turning Biles into a superhuman figure hasn't done her any favors.

Let's put it this way. Biles's body is exceptionally strong, her muscles and tendons and ligaments accustomed to being pushed beyond what any of us can do, her joints able to handle all manner of pressure—and yet, if something went wrong and she landed strangely and broke her ankle, we would all accept and honor that injury. Even if she pulled or twisted something and needed to take a break from the competition to let it heal, we would accept that. We would celebrate all that she had accomplished up to that point and grieve with her for the unfortunate injury. We would never expect her to compete in that compromised physical state, we wouldn't call her a bad teammate, and no one would remove her from their good graces.

Why is it so difficult to accept that a mental injury can be just as debilitating?

Biles's decade of dominance has proven that her mind is exceptionally strong, her focus and concentration and confidence are accustomed to being pushed beyond what any of us can do, her ability to perform can withstand all manner of pressure—and yet, when something went wrong mentally and she needed to take a break from competition to let it heal, she immediately lost people's support. People somehow expect her to be able to "push through" it, as though a mental impairment isn't as real or serious as a physical one—and as if a mental issue doesn't pose a physical threat in a sport that involves hurling your body into the air in ways that can kill you if you don't do it right.

Few of us understand the psychology of elite sports in general, much less the psychology of performing objectively dangerous physical feats, much less the psychology of having everyone expect perfection in dangerous physical feats during high-pressure competition. Add on surviving sexual abuse from your sport's main physician and being an advocate for others in the same position. Add on the stupid, racist, sexist commentary and criticism that come with being a Black woman in the spotlight. Add on the pressure of not having lost an all-around competition in eight years. Add on constantly being painted as superhuman.

Biles has already shown unbelievable endurance and proven her mental and physical skill, talent, and toughness multiple times over. She owes us nothing. It's unfortunate that Biles hit a wall at this particular moment, but even with intense training and preparation, we don't get to choose when our mental or physical limitations will hit.

We have no clue what it's like to be Simone Biles, but we all know what it's like to be human. Let's listen with compassion when she tells us that she's not superhuman after all, and let her do what she needs to do.

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Shanda Lynn Poitra was born and raised on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in Belcourt, North Dakota. She lived there until she was 24 years old when she left for college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"Unfortunately," she says, "I took my bad relationship with me. At the time, I didn't realize it was so bad, much less, abusive. Seeing and hearing about abusive relationships while growing up gave me the mentality that it was just a normal way of life."

Those college years away from home were difficult for a lot of reasons. She had three small children — two in diapers, one in elementary school — as well as a full-time University class schedule and a part-time job as a housekeeper.

"I wore many masks back then and clothing that would cover the bruises," she remembers. "Despite the darkness that I was living in, I was a great student; I knew that no matter what, I HAD to succeed. I knew there was more to my future than what I was living, so I kept working hard."

While searching for an elective class during this time, she came across a one-credit, 20-hour IMPACT self-defense class that could be done over a weekend. That single credit changed her life forever. It helped give her the confidence to leave her abusive relationship and inspired her to bring IMPACT classes to other Native women in her community.

I walked into class on a Friday thinking that I would simply learn how to handle a person trying to rob me, and I walked out on a Sunday evening with a voice so powerful that I could handle the most passive attacks to my being, along with physical attacks."

It didn't take long for her to notice the difference the class was making in her life.

"I was setting boundaries and people were either respecting them or not, but I was able to acknowledge who was worth keeping in my life and who wasn't," she says.

Following the class, she also joined a roller derby league where she met many other powerful women who inspired her — and during that summer, she found the courage to leave her abuser.

"As afraid as I was, I finally had the courage to report the abuse to legal authorities, and I had the support of friends and family who provided comfort for my children and I during this time," she says.

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via Matt Radick / Flickr

Joe Biden reversed Donald Trump's ban on transgender people serving in the military earlier this year, allowing the entire LGBTQ community to serve for the first time.

Anti-gay sentiment in the U.S. military goes as far back as 1778 when Lieutenant Frederick Gotthold Enslin was convicted at court-martial on charges of sodomy and perjury. The military would go on to make sodomy a crime in 1920 and worthy of dishonorable discharge.

In 1949 the Department of Defense standardized its anti-LGBT regulations across the military, declaring: "Homosexual personnel, irrespective of sex, should not be permitted to serve in any branch of the Armed Forces in any capacity, and prompt separation of known homosexuals from the Armed Forces is mandatory."

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