When my girls and I watched the Olympic Gymnastics Team Trials in St. Louis, we were worried for Simone Biles. We weren’t worried about her gymnastics skills or abilities. We weren’t ever worried that she would disappoint us. We were worried because all the focus was on her. I mean, all the focus.
I tried to be diplomatic in my Facebook post. The whole time, we were really bothered that it seemed no one else even mattered, but we didn’t want it to appear we were badmouthing Simone:
We are in St Louis at the US Olympic Gymnastics Team Trials! We're two days in, and I can't even find enough words. Obviously, Simone Biles is a star of stars, but we watched the men last night and the women tonight, and every single one of these athletes could represent the USA, and they would rock the world.
There were 15 other gymnasts competing for spots on the US Women’s Team. Every single one of them was amazing, but they were pretty much ignored … and not because Simone encouraged any of it. She never seemed to be a diva. She just seemed to want to be part of the team. She cheered for others. She was everything you would want in a great teammate … except she wasn’t allowed to be that teammate.
And it wasn’t just the media. Some of the “fans” in our area were disgusting in their rudeness. A woman walked her teenage-ish daughter down to the first row while Simone was competing on uneven parallel bars, so she could get a picture of her daughter watching Simone Biles. Clearly, she didn’t give a damn about Simone. She just wanted a picture of her daughter in front of the star. She also didn’t give a rip about all the people who had paid for their seats and couldn’t see Simone because she had to get a picture of her daughter. Believe me, those people were not happy either.
A woman in our row stepped on us as she went running down with her child to get a close-up of Simone. Yes, she actually stepped on us. And it was very clear the picture was for her, not her daughter.
These were not young girls who idolize Simone Biles for the amazing gymnast she is. These were adults! These were adults setting the example for their children on how to treat another human being.
In 1991, our family got to watch the World Gymnastics Championships in Indianapolis. Of course, it was amazing. Seeing the best in the world can’t be anything but amazing, and we felt so privileged just to be there. We were a gymnastics family (and I’ve always been a gymnastics geek), so we knew Kim Zmeskal was the star to watch that year. I just remember she took my breath away, and I believe she ended up winning the all-around.
Fast forward to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Prior to the games, Kim was on the covers of major magazines. She was the odds-on favorite. Everyone expected her to win. And then the unthinkable happened. She fell off the balance beam, and she stepped out of bounds on her floor routine. Sound familiar? We felt so horrible for her … not for us, not for our country … but for her. This human being, with the weight of the world on her shoulders, had some struggles in her routines. The thing that really upset me though, was the attitude of many Americans. Another gymnastics parent said to me, “Kim Zmeskal really let us down, didn’t she?”
She let us down?? She let us down as we sat on our couches watching this athlete who had spent her whole life training for this moment?? This was 30 years ago, and it still upsets me. How dare this woman think this young athlete let anyone down??
And now here we are. Simone Biles is struggling because the weight of the world has been placed on her as everyone expected her to win everything. Forget the fact that she’s human. Forget the fact that her teammates love her and vowed to step up for her. Forget the fact that, heaven forbid, they won a silver medal.
Yes, it’s fabulous to win a gold medal! We all love hearing the national anthem as the US flag rises to the top. But these athletes are people. Most of them are very young people. They are crazy good at their sports, but that doesn’t make them robots.
I am grateful to Simone for stepping back. I am grateful to her for saying it's for her mental health. I am grateful that she will always be one of the greatest athletes of all time, and I am especially grateful that perhaps this is the wake-up call our country needs …. so we can focus on the humans who also happen to be great athletes.
This much I know … our country needs to do better.