As a less-than-graceful 10-year-old I was enrolled at my local club without any success, though I have to tell you my party piece for many a year was a walkover into a double cartwheel. Nowadays I would do myself a mischief.
While I was a pretty useless teenage lump who hardly had the guts to clamber on to the four-inch beam, let alone attempt to actually move on it, I continued to be in awe of the grace and bravery of Olga, Nadia Comaneci and Nellie Kim, as well as those who came after. And that includes the incredible achievements of British gymnasts, men and women, in recent years.
But this week I have a new heroine, a young woman who in my view will never be beaten – even if she never performs again. She is American Simone Biles who is without question the most successful gymnast of all time. This week she had the guts to withdraw from competing in Tokyo and to openly tell the world why.
Because if her body was miraculously still physically fit, then mentally she was broken. And in the sport in which she excels that could have life-changing consequences. One wrong twist or turn and she could, as she told the world, risk being carried out on a stretcher. Or worse. But her story is one of triumph over adversity. It is about honesty over living a lie. And that takes real bravery.
Of course, blabbermouth Piers Morgan, the man who didn’t have the guts to stay in his seat and face criticism for his views on his own programme, immediately weighed in with his unwanted and vitriolic two penn’orth. “Are mental-health issues now the go-to excuse for any poor performance in elite sport?” he wrote. “What a joke. Kids need strong role models, not this nonsense.”
So here is my response. Piers Morgan, it is not the first time you have disgracefully brushed aside mental health issues, including those outlined by a duchess, a tennis player and now a gymnast.
What’s more, if you had done your research you may have understood why in doing what she did this week Simone Biles is now even more of a role model for young women (and men) the world over. Her story transcends sport and her actions give hope and a voice to many. She is the perfect role model for our kids and all of us. And here’s why.
Simone was placed in foster care in Ohio because of her mother’s addiction. She remembers growing up watching her mum feed the cat but not her and her siblings. Aged six, she was adopted by her grandfather and his second wife whom she calls Mom and Dad. Her stepbrother encouraged her and her sister to shout “Say it loud, I am black and I’m proud” as he drove them to school in a privileged white neighbourhood.
She obviously excelled at gymnastics but her success came at a tremendous cost. In 2018 Simone revealed she was one of more than 150 gymnasts molested by the American team doctor Larry Nasser. The abuse she suffered had, she said, led to suicidal thoughts. Small wonder she is “still struggling with some things”.
When the Olympics were postponed last year she reportedly curled up in a corner of the locker room, saying, “I’m old, I’m tired, stressed out... everything hurts.” I remind you she is 24.
But the saddest comment she made prior to events of this week is a mixture of self-awareness and confusion. “At the end of the day I’m such a huge athlete but who am I?” she asked. “If you take off that mask, who will I be? I’m still trying to find that out.”
Well, now we know. Behind the mask, behind the smiles, behind the performance is a young woman struggling with all she has gone through and how she got there. If she had sprained her ankle we would all have nodded sympathetically. Now she has openly admitted her issues lie with her mind and not her body there is from some quarters derision or a deafening silence. Yet this, I would suggest, is her most important contribution to date.
In failing to complete a successful vault, she took one enormous leap for all those forced to question why they feel abandoned by the people supposed to love and care for them.
She spoke for all those for whom being different gives way to pain and suffering. To those who are judged not by what they achieve, but by the colour of their skin. She also speaks for everyone trying to come to terms with abuse at the hands of those put in a position of power to protect them. And to all who wobble in everyday life, but don’t really know why. For that she deserves more than a medal. She deserves our applause and support. As do all those who have suffered in silence or have dared to speak out and been derided or ignored.
This week we have read about the abuse of children and young adults in Lambeth. We have been told it is still happening in Bradford. We know of course of Rotherham and Rochdale. And many more places.
Now all those young women and young men have found an unlikely role model in someone who has suffered yet taken on the world and won. But now admits defeat, because it all became too much. And probably because the delay in attending these Olympic Games has given her time to begin to process all she has been through. But, in doing so, she gives hope to all others trying to come to terms with their lives too.
Simone has on her ankle a tattoo of words written by poet Maya Angelou. It reads “And still I rise”. Never on the beam, the bars, the vault or on the floor has Simone Biles risen higher. Or achieved more.
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