"I can't get up and do this," Simone Biles said to her coach, Cecile Landi, after she balked a vault midair in the first rotation of the women's gymnastics team final Tuesday.
It was a moment of surprising vulnerability. For anyone, but especially for an Olympic gymnast.
Equally surprising was what happened next.
Landi listened. She took Biles aside, asked her if she was sure. She had Biles speak to a doctor, then to gymnastics officials. She had her back as those officials urged Biles to continue with the competition, and stood by as Biles officially scratched the remainder of the event. Biles has also withdrawn from the individual all-around competition Thursday, and her participation in event finals next week—she qualified on all four apparatuses—remains a question mark.
Biles spoke. Landi heard her.
What happened at the team final was nothing less than proof of a seismic change within gymnastics culture.
It began five years ago, just after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, when we first heard that former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar had, under the guise of providing medical treatment, sexually abused hundreds of young gymnasts. Many of them had spoken up, told people in charge, only to be ignored as Nassar's abuse continued. They were failed by coaches, by USA Gymnastics, by police, even by the FBI. Their reputations were smeared; they were told they were looking for attention. But people had started to listen. The tide started to turn.
The day before Nassar's January 2018 sentencing hearing on seven sexual assault charges in Michigan, Simone Biles spoke up. She was not the first, she would not be the last, but there's no denying the impact of her words in particular.
Biles wrote that day that she could not imagine returning to elite gymnastics and having to train at the ranch owned by coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, which served as the national training center, where some of Nassar's abuse took place. USAG listened and closed the ranch almost immediately. Biles tweeted after USAG hired Mary Bono as CEO, speaking up along with others to voice concern about Bono's connection to a law firm that advised USAG amid the scandal surrounding Nassar:
Bono resigned after four days in her job.
The fallout continued as famous coaches were exposed as abusers. The Karolyis, who selected Olympic teams over three decades, were accused of both enabling and ignoring Nassar's abuse, allowing the problem to grow. They pioneered a top-down style of coaching in the US in which gymnasts were expected to be seen and not heard. It was tough, strategic, and there was little room for feelings when results were on the line.
Maggie Haney, who coached Laurie Hernandez to the 2016 Olympics and was coaching Riley McCusker, a 2020 hopeful who did not make the team in the end, was suspended by USAG for eight years after a group of her gymnasts, including Hernandez and McCusker, testified that she had ridiculed their weight, mocked them, forced them to train while injured, stood by and laughed as they incurred grievous injury. Her suspension was later reduced to five years after an appeal.
John Geddert, who was the head coach for the 2012 Olympic team, was charged with human trafficking and sexual assault in relation to his treatment of young athletes at his Michigan gymnastics club where Nassar also worked; he committed suicide before he could stand trial.
The list goes on and on, and the athletes who were abused should have been listened to much, much sooner.
When gymnasts say they hurt, that it's too much, that they can't do it, trust them. They are elite athletes. They know their bodies and their minds. Remember Kerri Strug at the 1996 Olympics? She famously vaulted on a hurt foot after being told a gold medal was on the line. Her sacrifice has aged poorly; watching a replay of her vault now, it looks more like acquiescence than taking one for the team. Strug has voiced support for Biles after her decision to pull out of the team competition.
For too long, gymnasts were regarded as the puppets of their coaches, with little agency of their own. The last five years have changed that, and Biles has been at the forefront of the movement the entire time.
Biles has been fortunate and has been the beneficiary of compassionate coaching before. Her coach before the Landis, Aimee Boorman, once pulled her from vault at a 2013 competition, fearing at the time that Simone's mental edge was gone.
Biles has spoken of the Landis as partners in her career and credits them with pushing her to go further in the sport after she thought she had peaked in Rio.
On social media, in television interviews, in documentaries, Biles has spoken over the last three years, since she returned to elite competition in 2018, about the difficulty of that comeback. The physical pain. The mental pressure. The fear, after the Olympics were postponed a year, that she wouldn't make it. Her bewilderment that USAG refused to hire an independent investigator into their handling of the Nassar case, or own up to failing its own athletes. Because of her dominance, and her status as the only known victim of Nassar still competing for USAG, her words were heard and believed by most.
But she still was forced to bear the brunt of USAG's expectations for the Olympic team this year. Back in 2016, Biles had an established track record of dominance in international competition, but she wasn't yet a star beyond the borders of the gymnastics world. The Rio games changed that.
After the 2016 Olympics, Biles' teammates retired or began doing NCAA gymnastics. Suddenly, after a year off, she was leading teams of girls and young women who were largely no longer her contemporaries. She was a role model, not just one of the team anymore. It wore on her, she said. Her teammates were strong, every one of them, but USAG spoke of Biles as the key to American dominance.
After Olympic Trials this year, Tom Forster, the women's high-performance coordinator for USAG who oversees the team selection process, notoriously said that the team final score at the Olympics wouldn't come down to tenths of a point, freeing him from doing the math to put together the highest-scoring team and relying instead upon the gymnasts' rank in the all-around standings. Unspoken was his assurance that the United States would win gold because they had Biles as an insurance policy, and it didn't matter who else was on the team.
Forster said after a national team camp in January that Biles' presence on a team "reduces everybody's anxiety." But what about Biles' anxiety?
"That s--t's heavy," Biles said at a press conference Tuesday after she withdrew from the team final, referring to the weight of the expectations on her.
After qualifications, Biles wrote on Instagram, "I truly do feel that I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times."
And after she scratched from the team final, Biles told NBC's Hoda Kotb, on behalf of her team, that "We hope America still loves us." It's hard to imagine the kind of pressure a 24-year-old is carrying on behalf of her nation that would prompt that comment.
When Biles said it was too much, we are lucky that the people around her had listened enough over the last five years to listen again with a competition and medals on the line and to make her feel seen and heard. She has done more than enough for us in her career. We owe her our ears, and our hearts, as well.