Content warning: physical and sexual abuse of girls in the context of elite gymnastics
Simone Biles, the best gymnast this world has ever seen, delayed her well-earned retirement by five years. Instead of enjoying well-deserved time off, she stuck around and changed the abusive culture of her sport.
The impact of her staying is that the woman at the top of gymnastics today is also the last remaining active elite gymnast to have survived abuse by Larry Nassar, the serial sexual assaulter who used his position as the top doctor for US gymnasts to supply him with a thirty-year stream of compliant girls.
Nassar was a big problem, obviously, but he wasn’t a sole actor. He was an abuser embedded in an abusive system that supported him. He was promoted to his position in part because of his willingness to force injured athletes to keep working instead of giving their bodies medical care and time to heal. He used the culture of secrecy that this gross medical malpractice required to get away with sexual abuse. The Ranch he worked at, the dirty dingy secluded no-cell-service center where all elite gymnasts in the US, including Simone Biles, have been training since the mid-1980s, had a culture of fear so dire that gymnasts we afraid to ask for soap to use in the shower for fear of being labeled “non-compliant” and left off the team. Their coaches, Bela and Martha Karolyi, brought a draconian abusive elite athletic culture straight from the communist bloc. Gymnasts were literally starved at the Ranch, where any and all gymnastics mistakes were blamed on overeating, to the point where athletes were training six or seven hours a day on frozen carrots and peas. Nassar gained what trust he did in part by sneaking them food.
So, rapey dude got locked away, but this whole abusive gymnastics culture in which athletes are expendable and girls don’t get protection remained basically intact. The people who ran it were still running it. The whole idea justifying those years of abuse by the Karolyis, the husband-and-wife team who have been running US Gymnastics like my worst imagining of a communist dictatorship for the past thirty years, was that their methods worked. The girls won medals. The ends justified the means.
Yet, her whole childhood, Biles’ coach and parents pushed against this culture. They did what they could to protect her from it: broke bad rules, made good trouble, always told her, “we can walk away whenever you want.” They protected her sensitive, giggly kid-ness, let her have fun at practice, got her mental health care when she needed it, kept showing up even when they weren’t invited, and, to the best of their ability, didn’t let anyone be mean to Simone. Now Biles trains at a gym that her parents own, entirely built around the idea that parents should be able to watch their kids the whole time. No secrecy. No secluded Ranch. No adult men spending hours alone in small rooms providing nebulous “treatments” to girls trying to survive an obedience cult.
In January of 2018, at the beginning of her process of training for these Tokyo Olympics, Biles acknowledged publicly that she too had survived Nassar’s abuse. She tweeted that she never wanted to go to the Ranch again, and three days later they closed it down forever. That was the impact of her staying in the sport; they couldn’t just sweep it all under the rug. Biles made them change things.
Biles’ coaches talk about wanting their gymnasts to have balance in life. They prioritize health and well-being. They are creating a culture in which girls are protected. Anyone who wants to argue that they shouldn’t do that because they’re sacrificing excellence doesn’t have a leg to stand on because Biles really is that much better than everyone else. She’s their credibility.
Unsurprisingly, in this story as in so many others, the person fixing the abusive system by, for starters, being twice as good as anyone else, and then working strategically under the ever-increasing weight of the world’s expectations without ever being properly credited for her achievements is a Black woman. Is she tired? I’m sure. Does she deserve a rest? You bet. Is her story an inspiration to people everywhere to give Black women a damn break? I can only hope so. Rest is important. Mental health matters. Yes, yes, yes, to all that.
Also, she deserves to live.
Yes. Like literally stay alive.
Let’s talk about this week. That vault she did? The one at the beginning of the team competition where she was planning to do a not-as-hard-as-her-hardest-one-but-still-really-hard vault that then turned into a not-that-good version of a not-that-hard vault? That’s what I saw, anyway, and what the commenters said was happening, but elite gymnasts saw something I couldn’t.
Apparently there’s a psychophysiological phenomenon that happens in which you lose all proprioception. Gymnasts call it the “twisties” because of the impulse to twist to try to regain a sense of where you are in space, but the cute name sounds a lot less deadly than it is. Simone Biles has basically the world’s best sense of proprioception—“air sense,” they call it—which is why she’s able to jump up and flip over five times around two different axes in one second and then somehow know exactly where the floor is. On that day, on that vault, for whatever reason, she didn’t have it. We saw Biles without her proprioception. Elite gymnasts have said that Biles landing that vault at all was the most impressive feat of athleticism they’ve ever seen. Usually, when that problem happens at that level, people don’t just lose points, they lose knees. Or necks. Biles landed that vault at all because she’s the GOAT.
Then she talked to her coaches. Because of the changes she’s made in the sport, her coaches were not like the Karolyis who responded to Kerri Strug’s, “I can’t feel my leg,” after she injured her ankle vaulting at the Olympics in ’96 with, “we’ve got to go one more time.” They understood the problem, took it seriously, and encouraged her to do what she needed to do. As Biles said, “at the end of the day, it’s like, we want to walk out of here, not be dragged out here on a stretcher.”
It’s a low bar, but elite gymnastics didn’t meet it until literally this week. This week, when Biles dropped out of the individual all-around, USA Gymnastics, the organization that has prioritized generating medals over athlete well-being since 1963, issued a statement… applauding her bravery. Why did they do that? Because in the culture Simone Biles built, it was not tenable for them to do anything else. There’s no way anyone would’ve gotten that kind of support five years ago.
Simone Biles is the only person in the world in the position to change the culture of gymnastics, she knows it, and she stepped up to do what needed to be done. Because she’s not trying to die.
Here are some sources. Any mistakes are all mine; I’m happy to correct them.