The moment I heard the news, I began thinking about how I would break it to my girls. Simone Biles, the most talked about athlete at the Olympic Games would not be “going for Gold” with her teammates. We had rooted for her madly on Sunday night, gasping in unison when her tremendous power sent her well past the mat boundaries in the floor routine. We breathed a collective sigh of relief when she scored well on the beam.
We had been primed to idolize a 24-year-old woman who can perform physical feats of superhuman strength. That’s what we came for, and my girls were about to be deeply disappointed.
I thought about how to prepare them for living room heartbreak that night. But as I reflected on Biles’ heart-wrenching decision over the course of the day, something dawned on me. I had been gifted a powerful parenting moment.
I could flip the script. I could share with them the greatness that lies in listening to yourself and advocating for your needs. As far as outcomes I wish for the two girls I am raising, that’s right at the top.
Notwithstanding the impact of this unprecedented moment for Simone Biles personally, the positive messages it sends to girls around the world should not be missed.
Knowing your body and mind is powerful
“As I was watching the interviews, I was thinking what were the steps that Simone took?” says Tyish Hall Brown, a clinical psychologist in child and adolescent psychology and associate professor at Howard University. “The first was identifying within herself where she was.”
When the cameras zoomed in on Biles after her first faltering vault in the team all-around, you could just make out these words to her coach: “I don’t trust myself.” As an athlete who performs skills upside down 10 feet in the air, she has developed a keen awareness of where her body is in space. If she loses that—like she seems to have done on that vault (what gymnasts call “the twisties”)—the results could be fatal.
“As a therapist who has worked with kids for over 20 years, this is an amazing moment,” says Katie Hurley, author of No More Mean Girls, “because I am working with kids every day to help them take their own pulse and realize where they are.” Presumably, the stakes for most girls on most days are lower. But cultivating an awareness of how you feel physically and emotionally and what you feel capable of is a critical life skill.
Boundaries keep us safe and healthy
“There is all this talk about how you can get through things and cope in different ways,” says Sarah Vinson, a child and adult psychiatrist in Atlanta. “At some point we need to stop talking about resilience so much and start talking about boundaries.”
Prior Olympics offer us powerful examples of how tragic the results can be, one of the most iconic being Kerri Strug’s career-ending vault in the 1996 Olympic Games. Looking back at that moment—with what we now know of the USA Gymnastics’ culture of win-at-all-costs that enabled Larry Nassar to sexually abuse more than 150 gymnasts—we can see that an environment that doesn’t emphasize personal boundaries can wreak devastating harm.
May our daughters never know that pain, but given that 1 in 6 women will survive an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, according to RAINN—and that they are most at risk between the ages of 12 and 34—raising young women with the understanding that boundaries matter, and that they are entitled to them, may be the most powerful protection you can offer.
It’s your job to set them
“You want to believe that people in charge will look out for you and protect you, but once you realize that’s not necessarily the case,” says Vinson,” there’s an awareness that it’s really on you to do that.” Biles learned that lesson in the most heinous of ways and has kept pressure on USA Gymnastics to accept responsibility for what happened on their watch. We want to believe that our children will be protected by schools, sports programs, neighborhood organizations, but knowing that they may not, the best thing we can do is equip our children with the courage to stand up.
"In any situation—not just in sports—you want girls to be comfortable saying, ‘No. This is my body. I am uncomfortable, and I am not going to do this,’” says Aaron Smith, co-founder of A Mighty Girl.
“There was so much pressure for Simone Biles to stick with the script of seeing the Olympics through,” says Lisa Damour, author of Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, “and she came up against something that was getting in the way of her ability to do that and she said, ‘this isn’t right for me.’ That was extraordinary to see.”
Especially for girls of color.
“There is always this expectation that Black women are supposed to be able to push through anything that comes their way," says Hall Brown. “We’ve seen our mothers do it—work hard, juggle 20 things at once and put their mental health at risk or put themselves last. But, in this moment, we see Simone Biles putting herself first. She showed other women and Black girls that you don’t have to be everyone’s everything.”
“That was a powerful moment for my daughter,” says Gleni Joseph, whose 10-year-old daughter Ah’lai is a level 6 Junior Olympian in Atlanta, “especially with her being a Black gymnast. She looks up to Simone a lot.”
Mental health and physical health are interconnected and equally important
In the midst of a youth mental health crisis in America, Biles and her fellow Olympian Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open earlier this year citing her mental health, have given us living examples of how important mental wellbeing is to physical wellbeing and that you have the right to prioritize both. Their actions led advertisers like Nike to feature ads during the Olympics about the importance of mental health.
“A lot of the times as girls and women, we try to take on the world,” says Joseph. “But for Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka to say, ‘my head is not there,’ that gives power to anybody looking at the situation, not just an athlete.”
“When no one is talking about it, you feel like you’re the only one,” says Khadijah Booth Watkins, a psychiatrist and associate director for the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Simone Biles has encouraged people to talk about it, to not be embarrassed that you take medication and take care of yourself and treating mental health as health.”
A supportive community is key
“A huge part of resiliency is connection to others,” says Booth Watkins. One of the best things you can do for your kids’ mental health is “foster and encourage connectedness—connection to peers and connection to other trusted adults, because there are things you are not going to talk to your parents about.”
“Talking with someone around you who might be able to help you get through whatever you’re feeling is so important,” says Hall Brown, who saw that as a key part of the actions Biles took.
And when she decided to stop competing, “she didn’t walk away from her team,” says Hall Brown. “Some might say she let her team down, but after watching the interviews you see that her focus was not letting her team down. She didn’t want her mental health to get in the way of her team’s success.”
Biles told her teammates they had trained for this and were ready for it. And they rose to the challenge, offering Biles immediate support, and going on to win the silver medal, while Suni Lee won the gold individual, setting yet another important example for girls everywhere.
“This was such a magical moment of girls supporting girls and collaborative leadership in action,” says Hurley. “It was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.”
Greatness comes in many forms
“What Simone Biles did takes tremendous courage and responsibility,” says Booth Watkins. “She took a different path. It’s a comma, not a period, and it’s going to take her somewhere even better. We don’t want to run a race where we have no energy to finish. We stop to refuel so we can finish. That’s what makes her great and that is going to be what keeps her great.”
My Olympic ethos was forged on the injured ankle of Kerri Strug—the idea that champions sacrifice everything for national pride. My daughters’ will be defined by a young woman whose power was so great she could hurt herself— or worse—if she was not in control of it.
Faced with that choice, she exercised an equally rare power—the courage to protect her heart, mind and body. And for me, and my daughters, that will be the moment she proved herself the Greatest of All Time.
More about the Tokyo Olympics
The Tokyo Olympics have come to a close.