Gymnast Kerri Strug completed her vault routine with a painful injury – two torn ligaments in her ankle – at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Despite the United States’ guaranteed gold medal chances, her coach Béla Károlyi pushed her to vault again at risk of further injury.
The narrative at the time was that Strug’s display of perseverance clinched the gold medal for the U.S. Truth be told, the team was already in a position to win without Strug’s vault.
Strug’s iconic, one-legged vault has millions of views online and has inspired many people. But it was a completely unnecessary moment. She should not have been pressured into vaulting again after being injured.
After her performance, she was carried off to the sidelines, where the team doctor, Larry Nassar, stood. Nassar would later be convicted of sexual abuse and sentenced to 60 years in federal prison.
The injury cost Strug her career at 19 years of age while Nassar continued to thrive in a culture that hid the abuse of female athletes and treated them as expendable entertainers, rather than human beings.
Strug showed tremendous strength that day at the ’96 Olympics; her efforts should be commended, but let’s not make that the norm.
Simone Biles also showed strength this week when she realized that continuing to compete could both cost her team a chance at a medal and result in a personal injury.
After an awkward landing at the vault during team competition, Biles walked off the mat and decided to withdraw herself from the remaining events. She put on her sweats and cheered on her teammates from the sidelines, later disclosing to reporters that she withdrew for mental health reasons.
Admitting that took tremendous courage.
I’m not saying that an athlete should quit anytime things get difficult, but it is important to honor someone’s decision to step back and set boundaries.
Every Olympic athlete faces intense pressure to perform at the highest level to entertain viewers and represent their country well. One could argue that the amount of media attention and focus that Biles receives is a lot more intense than the average athlete.
After a rough start at the qualifying rounds, Biles shared on Instagram, “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”
Many notable people have shown their support for Biles’ decision to withdraw from the team final and the all-around competition, including Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Hoda Kotb and Kerry Washington.
She also received support from fellow athletes and teammates who sympathized with her struggle.
I’m sure withdrawing was not an easy choice for Biles to make, but she had the wisdom and foresight to know that competing with the “twisties” could cost the U.S. team a medal.
On Twitter, Biles retweeted and liked posts about the “twisties,” explaining how it can affect a gymnast’s performance.
Similar to the “yips” in baseball and golf, the “twisties” occur when gymnasts lose their muscle memory during a flip or maneuver. This is especially dangerous because they could lose their place in the air and land awkwardly, which could lead to a devastating injury.
Though it is disappointing that we won’t be able to see Biles do what she does best, I am relieved that she is uninjured and advocating for her mental health. It is incredibly powerful to watch a Black female athlete put herself first in front of the whole world.
It is also important to note that Biles is the only remaining survivor of Nassar’s assault who participated in the Tokyo Olympics. The body keeps the score.
In an interview with NBC’s Today Show on April 14, Biles talks about her reasons for coming back to the games.
“I feel like if there wasn’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they [U.S. Gymnastics] would brush it to the side. But, since I’m still here and I have a social media presence and platform, they have to do something,” said Biles. “I feel like gymnastics wasn’t the only thing I was supposed to come back for.”
It turns out that she was right.
Our Olympic athletes are inspirations on and off the world stage. Biles is paving the way for future athletes to prioritize their mental well-being as well as their physical well-being.
It is important for us to witness what happens when a young woman chooses herself and her well-being in our cutthroat and competitive society. Mental health should not be treated as a reward, but as a requirement for a healthy and balanced life.
Barry Svrluga writes in the Washington Post that “it’s impossible for nightly three-hour television shows to fully examine and explain what happens in the four years – excuse me, five years – between appearances in the public conscience. Sports are a joy until they’re a job, and the sum of it all – the work, the hype, the hope, the standard, the expectation – can easily be too much.”
People of faith should be the first to extend grace to others in situations like these. Let’s support our dedicated and talented athletes by sympathizing with them and understanding that we all fall short of others’ expectations.
There is no way to know what internal battles our nations’ athletes are facing; it is not our job to judge them for taking a step back. No one is perfect, not even the greatest gymnast of all time.
We should be proud of what these young women have accomplished amid the ongoing pandemic. Instead of dwelling on what could’ve been, let’s be excited and celebrate our team’s impressive silver medal win.