You can ask questions. We all have them. But please. Please do not pretend to know what it’s like to be inside the head and the heart of Simone Biles.
To us, she is a gifted goddess of the ever-evocative sport. A dynamo with divine talents that have graced her with the GOAT moniker and multiple media mentions of an untouchable legacy.
And yet. The gravity denying girl in the gilded leotard is a glance at the painting. The stunning tapestry. Ignoring all the miles of mountainous splatters that have amassed on her ground.
I have not suffered racial injustice. Or sexual abuse. My birth mother is not an addict, and I was not placed in foster care. And I sure as hell was never the gymnast Simone is, I barely shared the same stratosphere. But I was dedicated. I was an elite. And I can speak to the haunting terror the twisties put inside your head.
You do things that people treat like magic and in some ways they are. If they ask you to describe how you twist and flip like that in the air, you can describe the technique and the training and, you can break it down. Where and how your body is supposed to be and when, as a gymnast you drill these intricacies into infinity. Every millisecond a freeze frame picture, and you know them all by heart. But then part of it does come down to air sense. And that is a hard thing to describe. And an alarming thing to lose.
Never is a gymnast more acutely aware of the death-defying nature of her sport than when her mind rebels against her body. It is an inner scream that will not quiet.
And there is a reason for that. The internal signals are in place for a very significant reason. Safety is at stake. And when you’re talking about the levels of difficulty these elite athletes are challenging, lives are at stake. Nothing to be dramatized. Think about what they’re doing. If their minds and bodies aren’t unified, what can result is likely to be a casualty of impossible, undoable proportion. There are so many untold stories. Terrible, nightmarish stories. Avoidable stories.
But avoidance is not what the sport has fostered. That is not what is philosophically imbedded from the time things shift from being fun and bouncy to when training becomes oxygen. We are taught to push push push through the pain, always push. Harder. The harder the push the greater result. Work through the alarms. Listen to your coaches, not yourself. Not your signals. Not your knowing.
Simone, you did the most tremendous thing. You took agency of yourself. You did the bravest, boldest thing imaginable. The whole world showed up to see you and you knew it and with your own pen, rewrote a page in the book of gymnastics that was epically desperate for a rewrite. Gymnastics is so broken. A sport that has preyed on its own, discarded innocence in exchange for gold, pushes punishment in place of personal empowerment, prided its paradigm on a culture of toxic perfectionism that overrides intuition, you stopped. You pulled the page. You put wellness before winning. That is more the mark of a champion than anything that can drape around your neck.
And I hope you know it. Because here is the thing. Your physical prowess may never be matched. You have secured your spot in the record books forevermore, and not a one of us will ever be you, we never could be. But what you did on that fateful night in Tokyo, little girls watched. Adults. All of us. You made a historically brave call on the world’s most visible stage. You willingly subjected yourself to what you knew would be absurd and ignorant and ugly judgement from clueless cowards who get a vile thrill from that sort of thing. This was not an inconvenient mental health day, as they will claim, or weakness, or quitting. This was you choosing not to fly your helicopter into the clouds when you alone knew you could not see.
You self-advocated in a place where such a thing has been shunned. And in doing so, took care of your team. You took care of a nation. Your power of one, enough to embolden billions. Listen to your voice, and by God, use it no matter what forces are begging you not to. And that is the lesson I pray we all learned from your dauntless and beautiful audacity. A Simoment for the ages.
As a former gymnast, a mom of teenage daughters, and a human who always hopes to make the world a little better, I thank you for it.
Jolie Loeb is a Luxury Lifestyle columnist based in Los Angeles.
Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay
Thank you for this excellent article and clear explanation of the inner workings of this sport. I have the utmost respect for Simone, and am grateful for your smart, careful and informed writing.
Trying to explain her bravery to some very ignorant men, I too compared it to (Kobe’s fateful day and) what happens when a person has lost sense of the direction they’re flying. It’s unimaginable. Maybe one day the world will stop expecting women to dance to music (when men don’t have to) or wear leotards and 2-inch bikinis in order to prove they’re worth marketing in sports. Maybe the real gold Simone delivers America is the unquestionable reality that for any of us (especially athletes), there is no physical health without mental health. Because as far as I feel like we’ve come, there is still a WORLD full of education needed.
I finally understand why you refused to in any way share verbally your gymnastic experience. Even after being the highest ranked gymnast in California when you were eleven you just explained no one understood how hard you worked. Keeping your fears and horrors from dad and I was obvious….had we any inkling of what you put yourself through we surely would have at a minimum insisted you take piano instead. All gymnastic families send heartfelt appreciation.
So well written Jolie. Feeling it.
I’ll forward the article to you and Annie in a moment as one of the articles that answered all my questions as a tiger mom, mom, competitor, athlete!
Jolie you are the best with words.
Jolie thanks for sharing your precious life experience with us. It means so much. I personally had no idea. 🙏🏻
Thanks for providing a perspective on the world of competitive gymnastics to a mom of a competitive gymnast, who is struggling at this moment. While I know intellectually how physically demanding this sport is, I did not appreciate on an emotional level what a mental toll it can take on a person. Thank you for sharing your story. Hopefully, many more athletes will come forward with their experiences so that young athletes know that their fears, anxieties, and mental blocks are not a sign of weakness but a common phenomenon that makes them human. Most importantly, hopefully, our children will recognize the importance of being one’s own advocate, whether in sports or something else, because in the end, they alone know themselves best.
Wow, Jolie. Thank you for writing this. So, so much to think about here! I can’t help but wonder if male gymnasts are taught to trust their coaches and not their own voices to the same extent females are. And I think about how many other sports/activities/jobs/relationships force women to put their “knowing” on hold and push through their pain, be it physical, mental, or emotional. What Simone Biles has demonstrated is that it’s not only important to advocate for yourself, it’s vital. She is truly a hero in so many ways. I hope she knows it.
Thank you, Jolie. So beautifully said. Sometimes walking away is the most courageous thing we can do. It’s definitely taking me a few days to process and fully embrace the empowered decision she made. I think that more than anything Simone showed us her beautiful, formidable, and defiant humanity. We are not invincible. Nor should we expect anyone to risk everything just so we can try to believe otherwise.
Bravo!!! YES! Everything you so eloquently said!!! I believe this next path on sharing her struggle and opening up conversations on the importance of mental health might be her most important work yet and and she will save many lives. Straighten your crown Simone and hold your head high. So proud of you!!!!
What a wordsmith you are in articulating so passionately what we know to be true but inadequate to express.
THIS! Such a powerful truth. Thank you for these heartfelt words. I hope that this “Simoment” (love it!) reaches Simone.
Jolie, if your gymnastic ability matched your exceptional writing ability I understand why you were #1 in CA at age 11! Years ago a co-worker had a world class gymnast sub-teen daughter who the #1 coach in the world took in at his famous facility. She even had a balance bar in her bedroom! In spite of her clear world-class future, one day she walked away from gymnastics. The word was that she was “burned out” but whatever her reason, she made that decision and was totally supported by her parents. I admired her fortitude and relate to your article about Simone Biles. Well done,Jolie!
Jolie, once again your words are a perfect and eloquent capture. Thank you for painting a clear picture of what it took for Simone to execute the most important and challenging move of her life. Like you say, her decision to withdraw from the team final in Tokyo, only solidifies her status in another stratosphere as a GOAT inside and outside of the gym.
I have been trying to explain to some ignorant people that Simone’s decision was braver than any routine she ever landed, but not being a gymnast, my words fell flat. This is a beautifully written piece. Thank you ♥️
So lovely and heartfelt Jolie. I hope many people read your words, and that the more people that stand up with and explain why Simone’s actions were so truly brave, and not just “jitters” the more it will start to make sense to some people!
I tried to read your article out load to Ana and started to cry….partly from my own mixed feelings about the situation and from the eloquence of your words. I am so grateful for you!
Jolie, thank you for sharing this with the world. It’s honest and brave, just like Simone.
Such a great perspective on all Jolie. As a gymnastics mom it’s so important to see these issues being brought to light!!!
Only Now…rethinking your past do I fully personalize your deep connection. You had a really rare day off from workout because National Judges were coming to rank you. You went to a friends home in a gated community and latter waited for your sister to arrive to take you to workout. From the time you were five until you were past fifteen you described yourself as a gymnast. Waiting under a light post outside the gated community a resident ignored a Stop Sign and struck a car entering it which then ran completely over you standing under the lightpole on the curb. Your coaches refused to believe the severity of your contusions. The UCLA Keirlin JOab Doctors prognosis: Either she quit gymnastics yesterday or live life as a cripple. You just said ..”Where do I go now”. You made your very own moment and have since continued excellence as a deans Honor Scholar..wife and mom comparable to none.
What a kind and considerate and compassionate article. Thanks so much for writing it. (Go Simone!)
You have a gift for writing Jolie. While we appreciate Simone and all the talent this beautiful young woman has, you lift the curtains and help us to know her bravery and the complexities and challenges of the world and sport she navigates. Bravo Jolie. Bravo Simone.
As always, so well written and expressive and on-point. You write with such compassion and clarity. Thank you for sharing this so beautifully. Someone commented earlier & I agree…if your gymnastics skill was even half as good as your writing talents, it’s no doubt you were #1 at age 11!
Wonderful article about an amazing athlete written by a talented author. Jolie, your words are powerful and poignant. Thank you.
Jolie, after reading this I sat stunned for a while. The insight and compassion you bring to Simone’s story is everything. I so admire both her incredible skill and her incredible bravery. Thank you for your bravery, bringing us a bit into a world most of us can’t begin to comprehend.
Jolie, your words are stunning. Thank you for so beautifully speaking this truth. Simone is a true champion and I hope she inspires the world to value women’s empowerment in athletics and in life, and to lift the stigma surrounding issues of the mind and body that many do not understand.
Your articulate recap of Simone’s courage is momentous. Remarkably, she prioritized her mental health and physical safety over expected achievement. She’s a true champion and a hero little girls (and big ones too!) can look up to eternally. A genuine “Simoment” indeed.
So well put, and I agree with you. Her wisdom allowed others on Team USA to shine outside of her great shadow. This is the graciousness of true leadership. A real team player.
Thank you Jolie for sharing a bit of your story to help all of us understand Simone’s heroic moment we all just witnessed. I have always admired all the parts of you that allowed you to be an elite gymnast at such a young age. Honestly I can only somewhat imagine how Simone’s decision to put mental health first and not push through it for her team, for her country would resonate so deeply with elite child/adult athletes like yourself.
For me personally, her heroic decision also so beautifully represented the moment we are living together. We are all coming back from a year of loss, and as much something we have known our whole lives…. It is not the same and to pretend it is … is dangerous. Simone’s bravery gives me permission to give myself time and grace as I try to come back to my “normal” life, which honestly hasn’t felt so normal. It is the first time in my life that I can say if Simone can do it, so can I. And that feels good!
We are more alike than different.
Thank you Simone for rewriting a gymnast’s Olympic storyline and thank Jolie for creating space to absorb it into our own lives.
With the whole world watching (and many judging) Simone) I thought of Jolie and wondered what she was thinking and what insights she’d have to share. It’s been disheartening to hear people criticize Simone for doing what is right and sane. Jolie’s words here are so wise, and eloquent (and I’m hoping are ok to borrow in response to aforementioned critical buffoons). Last but not least, really special to hear Jolie reflect on her experience as an elite female gymnast.
Well said! As a mom to a competitive gymnast I appreciate your words and the role model Simone Biles is to all girls everywhere. She has showed our girls that it’s OK to trust themselves and to advocate for their own agency.
As a mother of a gymnast and a mental health professional, thank you for so eloquently summarizing what I have been thinking! Jolie- Thank you for advocating for honesty, kindness, emotional well being, balance, community, inner strength and empathy!
Thank you for reminding us what empathy truly is. Understanding how one might feel in a moment we have never had and scarcely understand! A much needed emotion that has been so damaged in the pandemic!
“This was you choosing not to fly your helicopter into the clouds when you alone knew you could not see.”
That is insight as clear as a sunny day. Thank you for bringing reflection and depth to this easily blown-out “thing” we all witnessed.
Absolutely SPOT ON! Thank you for weighing in on such an important topic, Jolie!
So absolutely true — and said so beautifully as always!! Thanks for bringing texture and depth to our understanding of this Olympian moment!!!
Such an eloquent take on Simone’s situation. I couldn’t agree more.
Thank you for writing this so gracefully and in depth. We need more of this!
As always, your voice and writing is honest and so so strong, which reflects who you are and what you believe. As the husband of the mother of two teenage girls who IS making the world a little better, thank you for writing this and for speaking this truth with such grace. I’m very proud.
Beautiful article! This truly explains what a wonderful woman Simone Biles is, and how strong she was to do what was right for her. I hope more young woman use her as an example that everyone must be true to themselves and stay strong in their beliefs.
Beautifully written! I especially love the helicopter in the fog analogy.
Thank you Jolie for sharing your unique insight. Now I want to know even more about Simone.
You’re welcome Nona. Me too.
Wow, beautifully written. Thank you for that