Simone Biles and my head in the clouds

Posted 8/4/21

My 8-year-old son and I watched Simone Biles warm up on the vault before the Olympic Games in Tokyo. He loves superlatives — the biggest dinosaur, the fastest bird, the most delicious pizza. When …

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Simone Biles and my head in the clouds

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My 8-year-old son and I watched Simone Biles warm up on the vault before the Olympic Games in Tokyo. He loves superlatives — the biggest dinosaur, the fastest bird, the most delicious pizza. When the camera zoomed in on Biles, I told him that she is the G.O.A.T.: the Greatest of All-Time. Right on cue, Biles flashed her brilliant smile.

Then the G.O.A.T. completely missed her landing, tumbling into a forward roll. My son thought that was pretty cool, but I knew something was terribly wrong. Another close-up revealed Biles assuring her coaches and teammates, “I’m fine. Just fine.”

But she wasn’t.

Citing concern for her physical wellbeing and mental health, Biles withdrew from both the team and individual Olympic gymnastics competitions. On the world’s greatest stage, she voluntarily walked away.

When I told my son about Biles’ decision to withdraw from the Olympics, he commented, “That means she lost.”

Yes and no.

Biles eventually returned for Tuesday’s balance beam final, much to the delight of her fans. But earlier, she said she withdrew because she felt “disoriented in the air,” which is dangerous, even potentially deadly, for a leaping, twirling gymnast.

I understand disorientation as a metaphor for struggles in my own life. In reflecting on Biles’ decision, I have been convicted by the words of a fellow Triangle pastor John Pavlovitz: “(Biles) is saying ‘no’ to the dangerous myth of toughing it out, and ‘yes’ to the wisdom of asking for help.”

Growing up in Raleigh, I played basketball, football and baseball. I was hardly the greatest in any sport. I was the catcher on the high school varsity team in part because I was willing to squat in the dirt, getting battered and bruised by ball and bat. I played through many aches, pains and injuries, including broken fingers. And I was regularly praised for “toughing it out” instead of asking for help or taking myself out of the game.

In this space for the Chatham News + Record, I have written about my family’s mantra during the pandemic: We can do hard things. I still want my son to learn that lesson.

I also want him to learn the value of knowing when he is not fine and help him have the courage to put his health first, though he may be criticized. Life is bigger than any game, no matter how many people are watching. Each of us must protect our own physical and mental health, including when there is mounting pressure to perform seemingly at all costs. What’s more, the only medal, reward or honor that can’t be taken away is your own sense of satisfaction that you did your best.

I said all this to my son and realized that his eyes had glazed over! I was really preaching to myself. I have no desire to learn a cartwheel, but I would like to have the courage to practice self-care, even at the risk of failing to meet the expectations of others.

The next day, my son and I drove to my parents’ home in Raleigh. As we crossed Jordan Lake, he exclaimed from the back seat, “Look at the beautiful clouds!” Scores of puffy white cumulus clouds filled the blue sky over the water. We played the game of naming the shapes we saw in the clouds — a rabbit, a dog, an angel, a fire-breathing dragon.

My 8-year-old son observed, “People can look at the same clouds in different ways. It’s like the greatest gymnast losing the Olympics. It all depends on how you look at it.”

Tuesday morning, I awoke to the news that Biles had won the bronze metal. Not the gold. Not the best. Or, as my son observed, it depends on how you look at it. I believe such a perspective on the importance of taking care of yourself is one of the greatest lessons to learn at any age.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”


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