Let’s not call it redemption or vindication. Those words imply a mistake was made. It’s not really a comeback either. That suggests her past success had been interrupted by failure. What Simone Biles achieved Tuesday by winning the bronze medal in the balance beam was something closer to equilibrium, the state of balance.
Before the Tokyo Olympics, the 24-year-old was seen as America’s greatest hope. Her withdrawal from team and individual competitions changed all that — a consequence of the dreaded “twisties,” a dangerous, disorienting condition in which a gymnast loses mental focus and sense of body movement in space. Winning what is almost certainly the final medal of her Olympic career on the final individual event was how she stuck the landing. She is now tied with Shannon Miller as the most decorated Olympic gymnast in U.S. history, but given that Biles has more gold medals (four to Miller’s two), the title “greatest of all time” is now undisputed.
I like that ending. I like that ending more than if the queen of American gymnastics had torn up the mats in Tokyo, winning golds at every stage, and dominated the competition. Here’s what Biles is beyond being scary-good at launching herself into the air and performing acrobatics that no other person can match: She’s a human being subject to the same limitations that all human beings face. Yes, she has more physical gifts than most of us will ever know. And she has the drive and focus to use them. How many hours has she spent practicing these skills? How many setbacks has she overcome? How many demons has she battled including a certain sex offender disguised as a team doctor?
When I was young, I rooted for the U.S. Olympic team to win medals. Wasn’t that the point? Why else have national teams? This was the Cold War era, and we couldn’t let the Soviets dominate, could we? As I grew older, I began to appreciate the breakout performances regardless of home country. How about that Nadia Comăneci? How about that Usain Bolt? They seemed as gods. But now as the Medicare years beckon (in the far, far distance), I find I appreciate as much those competitors who tried and failed as I do those who end up standing on the podium. Each has overcome adversity in their own way just to be there. They are the heroes of their own stories. Pamela Ware attempts a difficult dive on the 3-meter springboard. She missteps and ends up jumping feet-first into the water like it was party time in the backyard pool, scoring a “perfect” 0. There goes any hope for victory of any kind. “I made a mistake,” the Canadian later posted on Instagram. “It could have happened to anybody, but it happened to me at the wrong time.”
It must have been difficult to write those words. Just as it must have been incredibly hard for Biles, America’s beloved champion, to sit out all those events and instead root for her teammates. But this is exactly how life works. We work hard. We do our best. But sometimes it is not good enough. Sometimes, we come up far short of expectations. In moments like those, can we accept that we did not win? Can we appreciate the success of others? Can we hold our heads up high? If we cannot show good sportsmanship in the gym or the swimming pool or the playing field, what hope is there for how we deal with each other on the street or the workplace or in politics or in the halls of the U.S. Congress? Biles never threatens to hit her competitors with an oversize gavel. Nor, to my knowledge, does she describe them as morons, at least not publicly.
The U.S. team has done well this year. Good for them. China, Japan and the Russian Olympic Committee athletes have been amazing, too. But at some level, the delayed summer games will be remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of fans in attendance, and the athletes’ shared humanity — whether it’s Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi hugging over their choice to share the men’s high jump gold or the many moments of kindness extended to competitors, the runners who trip and fall and the gymnast who is sidelined. These moments I understand. These are moments to which I can relate. Most of us will never know what it’s like to perform a double-pike vault, but we all know what it’s like to face adversity, to come up short and, yes, every once in a while to shine. May we all do it with the grace and class that so many Olympians have demonstrated in recent days despite the limitations of a global pandemic. May be all have our moment to be like Simone Biles.