When Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team finals at the Olympics yesterday, Kerri Strug started trending on Twitter. If you’re unfamiliar with Strug’s famous 1996 vault at the Atlanta games, go watch it. Strug, then 19 years old (one of the oldest on the team), vaults and falls on the landing. It’s clear something is wrong with her ankle. But for Team USA to win the gold (which, at that point, the women’s gymnastics team had never accomplished), she had to vault again. So she does, tape on her ankle. She sticks the landing, pretty much on one leg, and after saluting to the judges she falls to the ground. She crawls to the edge, and is carried by her coach later to the podium to accept the medal. You know how people say, “Pain is temporary; victory is forever?” This is the axiom’s ultimate proof.
Or, is it? I love that vault, but after Biles’s withdrawal from the team competition, it makes me a little sad to watch this teen knowingly hurt herself in order to win a gold medal. Biles dropped out of the team final yesterday after her first vault, when she performed a one-and-a-half twist instead of her usual two-and-a-half, and took a large step on the landing. Today, she announced she wouldn’t be competing in the individual all-around competition either. (She was, obviously, favored to win, and so was her team; the latter won a silver medal.) In a press conference following the medal ceremony for the team, Biles said, “Once I came out here [to compete], I was like, ‘No, mental is not there, so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.’” She also told journalists she had, “the twisties,” a mental block in which a gymnast loses their sense of where they are in the air, which makes it difficult to perform correctly, increasing the risk of injury.
Gymnastics is a famously rigorous sport, but in the past few years its faced a reckoning as gymnasts have come forward to report sexual abuse by team doctor Larry Nassar as well as mental and physical abuse by Olympic coaches, including Strug’s coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi, and Maggie Haney, who coached Hernandez. Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, dropping out of the biggest competition of all time, is proof that the tides have turned.
Biles has faced plenty of criticism for her choice to withdraw from competition to protect her mental health and to prevent injury, but she has support from fellow Olympic gymnasts. Including Strug, who tweeted yesterday, “Sending love to you @Simone_Biles Team UNITED States of America.” Strug’s teammate at the ’96 Olympics, Dominique Mocenau, also tweeted her support. Mocenau also fell during the games, on the beam, where she landed on her head after an aerial sequence. She clung on and, miraculously, nailed the rest of the routine (the video is pretty hard to watch). Mocenau wrote on twitter: “I was 14 y/o w/ a tibial stress fracture, left alone w/ no cervical spine exam after this fall. I competed in the Olympic floor final minutes later. @Simone_Biles decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—’a say’ I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.”