FEATURE — Last time we were on this page together, on the eve of the Olympics, I told you about my oldest son’s experience as an elite gymnast. I told you about some of his big victories. I told you about some of his crushing defeats.
I told you about the grueling price his body paid – breaks, pains, strains, sprains – in a sport he loved.
And I told you that his dad and I believed, in spite of the hordes of medals and trophies our boy had earned, the whole gymnastics experience was never really about rankings and awards. It was about providing a venue for him to learn about himself and to grow.
All of that is true. But it’s not the whole truth. I didn’t tell you about the fear.
I didn’t tell you what it’s like to watch your son stand on the end of the blue rod tumbling floor, poised to do a progression of whips and flips to a triple twisting double flip, with bile churning in your stomach.
I didn’t tell you how your breath catches, then holds, and how your hands shake when you try to film him.
And I didn’t say anything about the mental rosary you quietly recite in your head: land on your feet; know where you are; please be OK; please be OK.
Because, in spite of the thousands (yes, thousands) of hours of training, you know that the difference between a great pass and a devastating injury is milliseconds and millimeters.
This is a dangerous sport. Your timing has to be impeccable, your awareness in the air has to be perfect, and your body and mind have to be one.
Eight years ago, one of the most decorated and exciting power tumblers in U.S. history inexplicably lost sense of where he was in the air while training a new skill – a triple backflip with a full twist – and broke his neck. He is paralyzed from the waist down.
Enter Simone Biles.
To say the internet exploded when Biles removed herself from Olympic competition in the team all-around citing mental health concerns after a shaky vault might actually be an understatement.
“Whoa, I think she has the twisties,” my son remarked after watching Simone’s vault. “Just look at her face,” he continued as they replayed her landing. “She’s still looking for another revolution, but her body stopped at one and a half.”
She had no idea where she was in relation to the ground. A gymnast’s worst fear realized.
To eradicate the “twisties,” a gymnast typically has to go back to the beginning. Back to a round-off. Then a round-off back-handspring. Round-off back handspring backflip. And so on until she/he can reprogram that air awareness and build back their confidence.
It takes weeks to get a skill back when the twisties set in. Or, in some cases, the skill cannot be recovered, lost forever in a perilous cliff somewhere in the mind.
The internet continued to explode after Biles not only removed herself from team competition, but from individual competition and contention of medals at the Tokyo games.
And it exploded again after Sunisa Lee, Biles’ 18-year-old U.S. teammate, took the individual all-around gold to make her the fifth back-to-back American Olympic gymnastics champion.
Biles, upon exiting the team all-around competition, told her teammates, “I’m sorry. I love you guys, but you’re gonna be just fine. You guys have trained your whole entire life for this, it’s fine. I’ve been to an Olympics, I’ll be fine. This is your first — you go out there and kick ass, okay?”
This is as much about why the Olympics is important as the silver medal the team later went on to win, or the gold medals Simone previously won. Because it’s a teacher.
And now, in addition to being a teacher of discipline, endurance and grit, it is now also a teacher of limits. A reminder to us all that pushing limits is remarkable – and so is honoring them. Because we are human and none of us, Olympian or otherwise, is immune to what that means.
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