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For exceptional Black women like Simone Biles, greatness is never enough

American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the team and individual all-around finals during the first week of the Tokyo Olympics. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)
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For one day, Simone Biles wasn’t the GOAT. Even though that’s how the announcer on NBC Sports described her as she prepared for the vault in the women’s gymnastics team finals Tuesday in Tokyo.

She wasn’t the infallible face of a greater movement, either, and that was evident when an audible gasp escaped the announcer’s mouth as Biles took one big step to catch her landing.

Whenever Biles pulls on her leotard, it’s as though she’s tightening a cape around her neck. She’s the hero tasked with saving a sullied sport, embodying some trite belief in American dominance — and also carrying a gender and an entire race.

That’s a heavy cape, and it chokes. But it’s one that exceptional Black women, and women of color, are told to wear. Because simply being great isn’t good enough.

They have to be superlative, as well as trailblazers. They have to be avatars of progress and change, and also fulfill a deeper societal responsibility as role models who break glass ceilings while breaking records.

Svrluga: Simone Biles and the price of being a GOAT

But here’s the thing: It’s okay for Biles just to be amazing. Let her greatness stand on its own. We can be wowed and celebrate her without also expecting her to single-handedly revive gymnastics after a sexual abuse scandal, while also leading little Black girls to balance beams all over the nation.

It was beautiful to watch Sunisa Lee, the first Hmong American to compete for Team USA, gracefully go ham on the uneven bars after Biles bowed out of competition. And just as inspiring to witness Jordan Chiles, another Black woman on the squad, step in for Biles and step up in two events. If they woke up in time Tuesday morning, little girls of color saw two stars performing on the world’s stage. That representation goes a long way when fueling a dream.

Years ago, this happened for the sport’s biggest star.

“I remember when Gabby Douglas won, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, if she can do it, then I can do it,'" Biles said during a promotional event in 2020.

Now, Biles embodies the dream more than any other hero on the Olympic stage. She’s supposed to be some sort of Moses, leading girls who look like her to the promised land where they will be free to do Yurchenko double pikes without the fear of someone mispronouncing their names or trying to touch their natural hair.

It’s noble, and she’s tried to hoist that pressure on her 4-foot-8 frame all by herself. But it’s also harmful, and unfair.

American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the team and individual all-around finals during the first week of the Tokyo Olympics. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

In the women’s 400-meter freestyle final, when swimming great Katie Ledecky touched the wall second behind Australia’s Ariarne Titmus, she was not carrying the weight of every American girl on her shoulders. In fact, somehow, losing made her story even more intriguing. And chances are not a single girl in suburbia decided against signing up for soccer after the U.S. women’s national soccer team lost to Sweden.

Ledecky and the likes of Megan Rapinoe are models for their sports. They’re not, however, cast as messiahs.

“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” Biles posted to Instagram a day before the team finals.

A different kind of pressure follows Black women who achieve in traditionally White spaces. If they’ve had a realist for a mother, since childhood they’ve heard the refrain they’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as much. And if they spent two seconds in America, then they know that mama was right.

Some feel that excelling is the only way to get a measure of respect. Overachieving not just for themselves, but so that the path is easier for the next Black woman who may follow their footsteps.

Simone Biles makes stunning withdrawal; U.S. women’s gymnastics takes silver

Just listen to Violet Townsend, who is young, Black and dope. She’s only 15 years old but has been racing Go-Karts for more than a decade, and has so many trophies her parents don’t know where to store them in their home — which abuts the racetrack they own in Ravenna, Mich. But since she’s a rarity in her sport, she has started to feel a new pressure besides winning her next race.

“Being the only one, there’s definitely more eyes on you: outside of the track, on the track,” Townsend said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “There’s definitely people that you want them to see you a certain way, so you try to be a certain way.”

With her breezy confidence, Townsend says this doesn’t hinder her when she’s whipping around the track. Her self-assurance is like that of 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde, who after becoming the first African American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in its 96-year history, told CNN matter-of-factly: “Just about everything I do, I’m good at.”

What’s so great about these Black girls: You can’t ignore them. But they are more than their achievement.

Violet and Zaila are going to grow up and be great. And we should let them. Let’s save these girls some trouble. Let Violet take the wheel without having to be the face of all the hopes and dreams of Black people in racing. And let Zaila do whatever brainy thing she wants to do next without having to save academia.

It’s not too late for Simone, either. She may or may not return to competition in these Olympics. And that’s okay. She will still go down as the greatest female gymnast of all time, and what a pleasure it was to watch her light up the sport. Little girls will certainly want to join gyms because of her. But letting Black women be great without carrying a deeper narrative should be the next step.