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simone biles

Health

Viral post thoughtfully reexamines Kerri Strug's iconic broken ankle vault at 1996 Olympics

"Yesterday I was excited to show my daughters Kerri Strug's famous one-leg vault...But for some reason I wasn't as inspired watching it this time. In fact, I felt a little sick."

Simone Biles withdrawing from the team final in the Tokyo Olympics and subsequently withdrawing from the individual all-around finals after getting a case of the "twisties" has the world talking. She's received overwhelming support as well as overwhelming criticism for the move, with some praising her for recognizing her limits and others blasting her for not persevering through whatever she's dealing with.

Some people pointed to Kerri Strug, who landed on one foot after vaulting with a broken ankle in the 1996 Olympics to help the U.S. win gold, as an example of the kind of sacrifice an athlete should be willing to make for their country.

Byron Heath shared some thoughts about that fateful day in a viral Facebook post that has been shared more than 370,000 times in less than a day.


Heath wrote:

"This realization I had about Simone Biles is gonna make some people mad, but oh well.

Yesterday I was excited to show my daughters Kerri Strug's famous one-leg vault. It was a defining Olympic moment that I watched live as a kid, and my girls watched raptly as Strug fell, and then limped back to leap again.

But for some reason I wasn't as inspired watching it this time. In fact, I felt a little sick. Maybe being a father and teacher has made me soft, but all I could see was how Kerri Strug looked at her coach, Bela Karolyi, with pleading, terrified eyes, while he shouted back 'You can do it!' over and over again.

My daughters didn't cheer when Strug landed her second vault. Instead they frowned in concern as she collapsed in agony and frantic tears.

'Why did she jump again if she was hurt?' one of my girls asked. I made some inane reply about the heart of a champion or Olympic spirit, but in the back of my mind a thought was festering: *She shouldn't have jumped again*

The more the thought echoed, the stronger my realization became. Coach Karolyi should have gotten his visibly injured athlete medical help immediately! Now that I have two young daughters in gymnastics, I expect their safety to be the coach's number one priority. Instead, Bela Karolyi told Strug to vault again. And he got what he wanted; a gold medal that was more important to him than his athlete's health. I'm sure people will say 'Kerri Strug was a competitor--she WANTED to push through the injury.' That's probably true. But since the last Olympics we've also learned these athletes were put into positions where they could be systematically abused both emotionally and physically, all while being inundated with 'win at all costs' messaging. A teenager under those conditions should have been protected, and told 'No medal is worth the risk of permanent injury.' In fact, we now know that Strug's vault wasn't even necessary to clinch the gold; the U.S. already had an insurmountable lead.

Nevertheless, Bela Karolyi told her to vault again according to his own recounting of their conversation:

'I can't feel my leg,' Strug told Karolyi.

'We got to go one more time,' Karolyi said. 'Shake it out.'

'Do I have to do this again?' Strug asked. 'Can you, can you?' Karolyi wanted to know.

'I don't know yet,' said Strug. 'I will do it. I will, I will.'

The injury forced Strug's retirement at 18 years old. Dominique Moceanu, a generational talent, also retired from injuries shortly after. They were top gymnasts literally pushed to the breaking point, and then put out to pasture. Coach Karolyi and Larry Nassar (the serial sexual abuser) continued their long careers, while the athletes were treated as a disposable resource.

Today Simone Biles--the greatest gymnast of all time--chose to step back from the competition, citing concerns for mental and physical health. I've already seen comments and posts about how Biles 'failed her country', 'quit on us', or 'can't be the greatest if she can't handle the pressure.' Those statements are no different than Coach Karolyi telling an injured teen with wide, frightened eyes: 'We got to go one more time. Shake it out.'

The subtext here is: 'Our gold medal is more important than your well-being.'

Our athletes shouldn't have to destroy themselves to meet our standards. If giving empathetic, authentic support to our Olympians means we'll earn less gold medals, I'm happy to make that trade.

Here's the message I hope we can send to Simone Biles: You are an outstanding athlete, a true role model, and a powerful woman. Nothing will change that. Please don't sacrifice your emotional or physical well-being for our entertainment or national pride. We are proud of you for being brave enough to compete, and proud of you for having the wisdom to know when to step back. Your choice makes you an even better example to our daughters than you were before. WE'RE STILL ROOTING FOR YOU!"

Many people shared Heath's sentiment, with comments pouring in thanking him for putting words to what they were feeling.

We're in a new era where our lens of what's admirable, what's strong, and what's right has shifted. We understand more about the lifelong impact of too many concussions. We have trainers and medics checking on football players after big hits. We are finding a better balance between competitiveness and well-being. We are acknowledging the importance of mental health and physical health.

We are also more aware of how both physical and mental trauma impacts young bodies. Though Kerri Strug pushing through the pain has long been seen as an iconic moment in sports, the adults in the room should have been protecting her, not pushing her through an obvious injury.

And the way this fall of Dominique Moceanu at age 14 was handled is downright shocking by today's standards. She said she never received an exam for it, even after the competition was over. So wrong.

Athletes are not cogs in a wheel, and the desire to win a competition should not trump someone's well-being. Elite gymnasts already put themselves through grueling physical and mental feats; they wouldn't be at the top of their sport if they didn't. But there are limits, and too often in our yearning for a gold medal—or even for a triumphant Olympic story—we push athletes too far.

Now we see some of them pushing back, and knowing what we know now, that's 100% a good thing.


This article originally appeared on 07.28.21

C-SPAN

When the "Me Too" movement sparked a firestorm of stories of sexual harassment and abuse, the world learned what most women already knew. Sexual abuse isn't rare. And far too often, it is covered up, with the perpetrator being protected while victims are left to languish.

Few stories have made that reality more clear than the uncovering of the years-long, widespread sexual abuse of young female athletes on the U.S. women's gymnastics team by the team's physician, Larry Nassar. The scope of his abuse is mind-blowing. The fact that it was happening all the time, behind the scenes, while the young women he was abusing were in the spotlight winning medal after medal, is shocking.

Now we're finding out how bad the investigations were, how these women were dismissed, ignored, and neglected, how investigators allowed the abuse to continue despite ample evidence that it was happening. That is simply enraging.


In emotional testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning, Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Maggie Nichols, and Aly Raisman spoke frankly about what they experienced. Their stories deserve to be heard and their criticisms of the investigations need to be taken seriously.

Simone Biles took a moment to collect herself during her opening statement.

"I sit before you today to raise my voice so that no little girl must endure what I, the athletes at this table, and the countless others who needlessly suffered under Nassar's guise of medical treatment, which we continue to endure today," she said. "We suffered and continue to suffer, because no one at FBI, USAG, or the USOPC did what was necessary to protect us. We have been failed, and we deserve answers. Nassar is where he belongs, but those who enabled him deserve to be held accountable. If they are not, I am convinced that this will continue to happen to others across Olympic sports...

"A message needs to be sent: if you allow a predator to harm children, the consequences will be swift and severe. Enough is enough."

McKayla Maroney was blunt in her assessment of what happened to her and offered a scathing rebuke of the FBI investigators. who she says falsified what she told them and "conceal Nassar's crimes from the public, the media, other law enforcement agencies, and most importantly, other victims."

"They chose to protect a serial child molester, rather than protect not only me but countless others," she said.

(Warning: Detailed descriptions of sexual abuse.)

Maggie Nichols' opening statement personalized her abuse: "I was named as Gymnast 2 in the Office of Inspector General's report and previously identified as Athlete A by USA Gymnastics. I want everyone to know that this did not happen to Gymnast 2 or to Athlete A. It happened to me, Maggie Nichols."

Aly Raisman detailed what an abysmal failure the investigations into Nassar were, and shared her frustration that they are still seeking answers six years later.

"The FBI and others within both USAG and USOPC knew that Nassar molested children and did nothing to restrict his access," she said. "Steve Penny and any USAG employee could have walked a few steps to file a report with Indiana Child Protective Services, since they shared the same building.

"Instead they quietly allowed Nassar to slip out the side door, knowingly allowing him to continue his "work" at MSU, Sparrow Hospital, a USAG club, and even to run for school board. Nassar found more than 100 new victims to molest. It was like serving innocent children up to a pedophile on a silver platter."

Each of these women's testimonies matters. It takes strength and courage it takes to speak about abuse you've experienced in a public forum, much less to call out powerful institutions for their failures. Kudos to these fierce defenders of justice and protectors of children for sharing their stories and for attempting to ensure that the systems that failed them will not continue to allow harm to others.







Since Simone Biles backed out of the team final at the Tokyo Olympics two days ago, the question everyone's been asking is "What the heck happened?"

After two botched vaults, Biles took herself out of the competition, later saying, "I had no idea where I was in the air."

Former gymnasts recognized her wording and have taken to social media to explain a condition known as "the twisties." On a basic level, the twisties is a mental state where your muscle memory shuts down in the air mid-twist. It can happen to any gymnast at any time, but is more likely under intense pressure. It might seem like a mental block is not something that could happen to the unrivaled Simone Biles, who routinely performs incredibly well under pressure, but brains are fickle things.

This explanation from former gymnast and diver Catherine Burns lays it out:


She wrote:

Hi, your friendly neighborhood former gymnast and diver here to attempt to explain the mental phenomenon Simone Biles is experiencing: the dreaded twisties. 💀

When you're flipping or twisting (or both!) it is very disorienting to the human brain. When training new flips and twists, you need external cues to learn how it feels to complete the trick correctly. (In diving, a coach yells "OUT" and you kick your body straight and pray).

Once you've practiced a trick enough, you develop the neural pathways that create kinesthesia which leads to muscle memory. Your brain remembers how your body feels doing the trick and you gain air awareness.

Think about something that took you a while to learn and required a lot of concentration at the time to get it right, but now is second nature. Driving a car is a good example (especially stick!)

Suddenly, in the middle of driving on the freeway, right as you need to complete a tricky merge, you have totally lost your muscle memory of how to drive a car. You have to focus on making you foot press the pedal at the right angle, turn the steering wheel just so, shift gears.

It's terrifying. You're moving way too fast, you're totally lost, you're trying to THINK but you know you don't usually have to think to do these maneuvers, you just feel them and do them.

The twisties are like this, and often happen under pressure. You're working so hard to get it right that you stop trusting your muscle memory. You're getting lost in the air, second-guessing your instincts, overthinking every movement.

It's not only scary and unnerving, it's incredibly dangerous even if you're doing basic gymnastics. The level of skills Simone throws combined with the height and power she gets can lead to catastrophic injury if you're not confident and connected to your kinesthesia.

This isn't as easy to fix as just sleeping it off and hoping for a better day tomorrow. It can look like retraining entire routines and tricks. I never mastered my front 1.5 with a full twist because I'd get the twisties and it would mess with my other twisting dives.

So. When Simone says she's taking it day by day, this is why. She's not soft. She didn't choke. She isn't giving up. It's a phenomenon every gymnast and diver has experienced and she happens to be experiencing it at the Olympics. Can you imagine the frustration? The heartbreak?

I'll also add that @Simone_Biles choosing to bow out pushes back against a dark narrative in gymnastics that you sacrifice yourself for the sake of the sport; you are the product of your coaches and you owe them wins, no matter the personal cost.

No. You owe nobody anything, and you especially don't owe them your body, your health, or your autonomy. I hope every single tiny baby gymnast got that message on self-advocacy and setting boundaries loud and clear. Thank you, @Simone_Biles."

Biles herself retweeted a post that reiterated how dangerous her situation truly was:

"For non-gymnasts, the fact that she balked mid-air and accidentally did a 1.5 on her first vault instead of a 2.5 is a big deal. It's terrifying. She could have been severely injured getting lost in the air like that. The fact that she somehow landed on her feet shows her experience and is incredible The margin for error on a skill like that is insanely low. A very small wrong move, and career-ending or even worse, life-threatening injuries can occur."

And other gymnasts have weighed in with attempts to explain to people outside the sport what the twisties mean and how real the mental block is.

One particularly sobering response came from Jacoby Miles, who was paralyzed after a gymnastics accident at age 15.

"I experienced those mental blocks throughout my career as a gymnast," she wrote, "and to be quite blunt, it only took one bad time of getting lost (or what they call the "twisties") in the air in a big flip to break my neck and leave me paralyzed...most likely for life...so I'm SO SO glad she decided not to continue until she's mentally recovered."

Many armchair commentators have attempted to explain why Biles backed out of the team competition and what it means about her as a competitor, but the only people whose commentary counts are those who have experienced what she's going through. Arguably, no one knows what it's like to be in Simone Biles's shoes, but other gymnasts understand the mental elements of the sport and what can happen if everything isn't aligned just right.

It's an act of wisdom to acknowledge when you're faced with a limitation out of your control, and an act of courage to sacrifice a dream in order to protect your well-being as well as your teammates. Good for Simone Biles for setting an example to other athletes to know when it's time to call it.


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.