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

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 athletein 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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