Gymnastics, judgment, curiosity

The big news recently has been about Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of the team gymnastics final. I’ve had the opportunity to read several thoughtful pieces written by people in support of Biles’ decision, and I’ve learned a lot.

I had no issue with her decision without knowing the things I’ve learned. She knows best what she needs to do. Based on her history, I don’t think there’s any doubt that she’s tough as nails and works insanely hard. Also that what she does is dangerous. They’re not giving her full credit for the difficulty of some of her moves because they’re afraid other gymnasts will injure themselves trying. (Maybe. That’s another conversation for another day.) She has four moves named after her. 

This is clearly not an issue of “I don’t feel like it” or “it’s too hard.”

In reading this Facebook post written by a former gymnast, I learned about specifically what happened when she vaulted, why it’s potentially life-threatening, and what happened to her when she had the same issue.

Continuing to do what she does, even at a lesser level than what she usually delivers, could paralyze or kill her.

Gymnasts and divers have a name for this problem. They call it the twisties. All of the gymnasts and divers who I’ve seen weigh in on this support her decision because they could see what was happening.

While there are certainly people who wouldn’t care about that, I’d like to think that many of the people who are dragging her through the mud right now would change their tune if they knew more.

Which is where the problem is.

Why do we have to know more to have compassion?

A very short and mic-dropping blog post by Seth Godin gave a fantastic alternative to outrage. 


They rhyme, but they have opposite meanings. It’s very difficult to feel both emotions at the same time, and one is far more productive than the other.

Instead of judging and calling her a quitter, maybe be curious about what happened.

Instead of assuming that what she’s experiencing is something you can relate to and are therefore somehow qualified to judge, maybe be curious about what would cause someone the best in her field to stop mid-competition.

As a tangent to that last bit, I am gobsmacked at how people watching from the couch think they know or can appropriately judge any of these events. I guess we’ve primed it in our obsession with professional sports and a select few men’s college sports, but seriously. People who can’t walk on the curb without falling into the street are judging Simone Biles?

One step further, though, is: why judge at all? In this context, watch, be amazed, celebrate the wins (a silver medal is not a loss, people!), mourn the losses. Think about the context of the competitors. They’re young. They’ve given up normal childhoods and early adulthoods in pursuit of their sport. They’re living their dream, but not without cost. There’s always a tradeoff. Who are their parents, and how do they feel watching their child compete at this elite level? Who are their siblings? (Can you imagine being the athletic but not Olympic-level athletic sibling of any of them?) What are they going to do a week after they get home? Or after they can’t do their sport any more? (That last question is a problem for professional athletes as well.)

Curious instead of furious. Trusting that these athletes know themselves. Remembering that it’s an athletic competition that you have no stake in. Curious about how difficult it must be to work that hard and then make the decision to stop. (How many of us make bad decisions to continue because we are so invested in our dream outcome and it’s too painful to quit?)

The way we react to this (well, not exclusively this) says way more about our country than the number of gold medals we bring home. (Well, we react? They bring home the medals. Most of us have nothing to do with any of it but watching and reacting.)

Lots of ways to apply this to lots of life, but for today, let’s applaud Simone Biles for having wisdom in making a difficult decision. She’s world-class, whether you judge her that way or not.

Here are the four best Facebook posts I’ve seen, including the one I linked above. As of publication, they all have public privacy settings, so you should be able to see them.

One about Elena Mukhina who competed in 1978

One written by a former gymnast with frame-by-frame photos and general explanation so we can see what happened. (This is the one linked above.)

One about Kerri Strug (I remember watching this in 1996)

And one simply about strength.

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