Breakfast over Wheaties was especially sweet this morning upon learning of Simone Biles picking up a bronze medal in the Tokyo Olympics after a week of turmoil and anguish. And, we have just learned, adding to that tumult was the loss of her aunt in recent weeks. Her entire experience and public reaction have taught us a lot about ourselves and our society.
The reaction to her suddenly pulling herself out of several events due to mental stress was swift and mixed – a combination of disbelief and confusion. And yes, there were the inevitable attacks on social media. Yet, because of her honesty and forthcomingness, that very quickly turned to an outpouring of support – most prominently from teammates, fellow Olympians, and other athletes – but, as importantly, from individuals across the globe who sympathized and recognized themselves in her struggles. In that way, we found much needed common ground.
It’s not the first time athletes have struggled to perform. In baseball, former Twins/Yankees All-Star second baseman Chuck Knobloch suddenly stopped being able to throw the ball to first base. His career was soon over. Similarly, Rick Ankiel, a no-miss St. Louis Cardinals pitcher with a blazing fastball, switched to outfield after he was unable to find the plate. Known in that sport as the “yips,” that pressure to perform on a grand scale mirrored in many ways Biles’ “twisties.” Such struggles just weren’t talked about publicly back then. Instead, athletes suffered in silence and disbelief. More recently in May, tennis start Naomi Osaka chose to avoid press conferences and interviews surrounding the French Open.
What has been most interesting and heartening to watch in all of this is how the mainstream media and, somewhat incredibly, social media have provided positive, high-profile forums for the world to share experiences, demonstrate support, and express empathy. In Covid-ravaged, divided and stressful times, we needed a “coming together.” Through Biles’ courage and openness, we have looked within and beyond ourselves – and that is when we are all at our very best.