By Jennifer Hill Buehrer LMSW
Over the past few days the talk of the town has been all about Olympic gymnast Simone Biles. I’ve always admired her – she was the talk of the town last time around, in 2016, because of her amazing skill, and poise, and remarkable maturity given her age which at the time was 19 (admittedly not that young for an Olympic gymnast, but still impressive). And because of all the medals. She is the most decorated gymnast of all time, and yet she has stepped out into the spotlight this time for something entirely different: admitting her limitations. Last week she had an experience that only gymnasts really understand, I guess – “the twisties.” This is the term for losing awareness of the air and of one’s body while in the midst of gymnastic stunts, and Simone took this undoubtedly frightening experience to mean that she needed a break. And right in the middle of the Olympics. I would use a crude colloquialism in conversation but in this context, let me just say, that took GUTS.
I think most people who follow the sport at all know that Simone is one of the hundreds of young gymnasts who suffered horrible sexual abuse at the hands of a well-known physician who supposedly devoted his life to caring for athletes. I won’t even use his name in this story – but you know who I mean. That ongoing experience and all that it’s taken to bring him to justice (he’s now in prison for life) is a pretty big piece of the puzzle that led to Simone’s feelings and her decision, I’m sure. Trauma, whether at the hands of another person or people, or as a result of something we can’t control like a pandemic, leaves lasting marks on the psyche of the strongest of people. And those marks will continue to open up, and bleed, and even get infected (metaphorically speaking) if left untended or not taken seriously.
In my mind over the past few days I’ve related Simone’s story to so many things I’ve been discussing in this column during the past 1.5 years. The pandemic has brought so many brilliant medical professionals to the brink of stepping away. And it has brought some to actually do it. It makes me so sad to see that happen, but at the same time I admire those who have used this experience to reevaluate priorities. It’s something I would suggest that most of us don’t do often enough. We are all human and we all have breaking points. As difficult and sometimes devastating as it can be to reach those breaking points, they serve a purpose. Without them, I think most of us would just continue to trudge along and do what we do every day, and not necessarily think about whether it’s what we really should be doing. Or even more importantly in my opinion, if it’s what we want to be doing. I thank the Universe for people who set the kind of example that Simone has set for us. And that goes for you too – those of you who have done something similar.
One of the things that makes Simone, and so many people I work with in this field, the “Greatest of All Time” (GOAT) is a willingness to face their limitations, and the courage to seek fulfillment wherever it might be found – even if that means doing something completely different. Or turning one’s life upside down. We get one chance at this life, as far as we know, and never, ever should we let something outside of ourselves steal our opportunity to make it uniquely ours, and uniquely remarkable.