Simone Biles is an amazing athlete. As a gymnast she has been at the top of her field. The very definition of skill, tenacity and heart. Now she has shown the world another side. One usually hidden at all costs.
Remember local star Kerri Strug? In the 1996 Olympics she pushed through her ankle pain, landed the last vault and was carried away victoriously in her coach’s arms. That’s what we expect from athletes. From Americans. We aren’t quitters. So many of these athletes are babies. Taken from their homes, trained under brutal physical and emotional conditions then thrown in front of the world to be analyzed, dissected and watched. Some were as young as 13 in this Olympic competition! Two 13 year olds and a 16 year old won the skate boarding honors.
They were all prepared to compete in 2020 when the games were suddenly postponed due to a global pandemic. Now these incredible men and women had to maintain the same pace for another year before being thrown on the world stage under enormous pressure to win for their country. I can’t imagine what it takes for them to survive not just the physical but emotional stressors. Admitting both needs are equally important is unthinkable.
Too often we try to excise the emotional side. Adamant if ignored, pushed down or trained through, it won’t exist. Take it from a physician, that never works. It always demands attention. And when denied for too long, our bodies will shut us down.
I took care of a patient who had lost a child, her husband was on the road a lot and due to a recent relocation from New York, she was isolated from friends and family. It was heartbreaking. First, she had shortness of breath she attributed to a reawakening of her childhood asthma. Then gastrointestinal distress due to multiple bouts “of the flu or food poisoning.” Then back pain so bad she was bed ridden. All frightening, real and debilitating physical issues. But it’s never only one or the other. No matter how often I explained treating just her physical complaints would help, it would not resolve without attending to her emotional anguish as well. All mental health interventions were refused. One weekend I received a call from the emergency room- she had presented with chest pain and was admitted to rule out a heart attack. It was a full blown panic attack so severe she thought she was dying. After a long, open conversation they moved back to New York. I still get an occasional update that she’s continuing to improve now that she has the support she desperately needed.
Another gentleman was sure he was “healthy” because he felt great and didn’t take medications. He hadn’t seen a provider in years. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. At 62 he had a massive myocardial infarction. Thankfully he was transported immediately for treatment and had a full recovery. Months later he started having repeated bouts of severe, incapacitating chest pain. All tests were negative. Only after openly addressing his fears of having another myocardial infarction and labeling himself “sick” did his pains end.
The body is very protective. It gives us signs a problem exists. Subtle initially, then stronger as we refuse to listen. Make no mistake – The. Body. Will. Shut. Us. Down if we do not listen. Thankfully it doesn’t usually go that far for most of us.
Micheal Phelps has since admitted the severe emotional toll his sport exacted on him. But he felt compelled to wait until after he retired. Still a wonderful admission that has helped countless numbers. Yes, they represent their country, but it’s their lives and bodies.
One false move and they can de maimed or killed. Simone Bikes didn’t skink away and hide. She didn’t make excuses or pretend a physical concern the world would have understood. She spoke openly about her issues and was there to support her team in all ways she could. She is suffering from “the twisties.” A gymnast’s nightmare.
As we learn skills, they become second nature- like walking. We don’t consciously think about how we move our arms and legs, or the cadence and balance required. Once learned, it’s automatic. The same is true for athletes. Years of training complex movements creates muscle memory- a state where little if any thought is required to perform them. Under pressure, when actions aren’t as expected confidence is eroded. Often we then try to out think the muscle memory and take conscious control, leading to further errors and deterioration. In gymnasts, it can progress to the point they have no clue exactly where they are in space while twisting and flying through the air. In other sports they’re called “the yips”- physical symptoms caused by mental interference often related to fear. Golf calls it the shanks. Except for an errant ball nobody is in physical peril when they attack.
That’s the thing about balance- it requires both the mind and body be in sync and work together. You can’t just will it away. Put on your big girl pants and do it. Ignore it. Sooner or later the imbalance is so great the body shuts down. Self preservation is all that matters. Regardless of what our minds want. There is only one solution-acknowledging the issue, all out complete and utter surrender that honors our need to shutdown and reboot. We don’t choose the time and place.
Simone Biles didn’t pick the Olympics, she isn’t making a statement. I have no doubt she tried desperately to make it go away. But it became all too apparent after her brush with injury after a routine vault landing that it wasn’t going to work this time. She honored herself and in doing so honored all of us. She gave us a great gift when she acknowledged to the world, “I am human.”