Choosing Respect

Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me;
O LORD, make haste to help me.
Let all those be put to shame and confusion
who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
who desire my hurt.
Let those be appalled because of their shame
who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
 

But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, “Great is the LORD!”
As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God. – Psalm 40:13-17 (NRSV)

 

In the summer of 1984, I convinced my parents to let me have our small basement TV in my room so I could watch the summer Olympics. Swimming, diving, gymnastics, track and field: I wanted to be able to watch it all. I remember Mary Lou Retton, Joan Benoit, Carl Lewis, swimmers who were barely older than I, and Gabi Andersen-Schiess from Switzerland as she stumbled her way around the stadium to finish the marathon, practically incoherent from heat exhaustion. Watching the talent, hearing the life stories, and realizing the sacrifices the athletes made to achieve their Olympic dream was awe-inspiring.

The speed, strength, agility, and grace of women’s gymnastics has always captivated me. Like many others, I became an unofficial expert, able to calculate what each bobble, hop, or step was going to cost in deductions as we waited for the scores to be revealed.

In junior high, I remember the rotations we would have in gymnastics in P.E. I remember the fear at the height of the uneven bars when I let go of the top bar to reach for the lower. My greatest feat on the balance beam was performing a round-off on dismount (other than that I just walked back and forth).

My favorite was the vault. I loved the power of running and jumping on the board and reaching for the vault. I achieved an ungraceful straddle jump. I longed to do a flip but never garnered the courage to even attempt it.

 

This week, the greatest gymnast of all time — and many argue the greatest athlete of all time — Simone Biles removed herself from competition at the Olympics. First, it was only the team finals, and now, the individual all-around. At first, people feared an injury. Later, she explained that she was not in the right “head space” to compete.

Responses were mixed.

While some recognized her right as an athlete to determine her ability to compete, some charged that she was letting her team down. This rhetoric has increased with the Russian team victory and now her further withdrawal. I read the anger and vitriol towards Biles’ decision and wonder who we are as a society.

 

Compounded by the pandemic, mental illness has increased. Despite high profile suicides, public awareness campaigns, and more people willing to talk about their struggles, the stigma remains. Science has proven that mental illness is physical and not just in our heads. However, as a society we continue to regard it as a weakness, choice, or an excuse to avoid things someone doesn’t want to do. As a result, people are not able to receive the help and support they need nor do we prioritize mental health resources and programs.

Being able to acknowledge mental illness is a step towards healing. When I reveal I have torn my PCL, no one challenges my decision to reduce my activity and receive physical therapy. When I reveal my depression and cannot do things I may have previously committed to or need to allot more time to see my therapist, it’s less accepted.

The challenges of mental illness aren’t often visible. Coupled with being very effective at hiding it, the inconvenience I may cause to others is less tolerable. The time and space needed to deal with either the episode itself or creating an environment of strength and healing can be considered selfish, an excuse for more “me time.”

 

In addition to this and being on the world stage, Biles mental health has an immediate impact on her physical safety. During her vault in the team final, “Biles got lost in the air and didn’t know where her body was in relation to the ground.”  This doesn’t mean much in my P.E. gym class, but in women’s competitive gymnastics, it can be disastrous. Consider the mid-air loss of understanding where your body is in space as you watch one of Biles’ historic vaults from May.

This miracle of skill, power, and grace was described as follows.

The Yurchenko double pike is considered so perilous and challenging that no other woman has attempted it in competition, and it is unlikely that any woman in the world is even training to give it a try. To execute it, a gymnast first must launch herself into a roundoff back handspring onto the vaulting table, and then propel herself high enough to give herself time to flip twice in a pike position (body folded, legs straight) before landing on her feet.

When Biles completed the first double double on the balance beam (two twists and two backflips), the International Gymnastics Federation awarded the difficulty level the same as if she had performed it on the floor. The reason? In order to discourage less-talented gymnasts from attempting it (and risking injury).

We might think gymnastics is something little girls do, but it is not only incredibly physically-demanding but also extremely dangerous. When the greatest of all time determines she is unable to compete, we should not only honor her decision but respect the strength in making it.

When the greatest of all time determines she is unable to compete, we should not only honor her decision but respect the strength in making it. #Tokyo2020 #SimoneBiles #Respect #MentalHealthMatters Click To Tweet

We bemoan the loss of kindness, trust, and community without realizing that we are the ones killing it. We have become increasingly talented at judging one another from where we sit without considering whether they might know more about their situation than we do.

We are quick to consider the worst, assuming that selfishness is the driver in the personal choices others make. I think we need to consider whether that is a true reflection of others or the more accurate truth about ourselves.

We are quick to assume selfishness is the driver in the personal choices others make. Maybe it isn't a true reflection of others but the more accurate truth about ourselves. #kindness #Tokyo 2020 #MentalHealthMatters #SimoneBiles Click To Tweet

Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka should be commended for their skill and achievements in their respective sports. We should be in awe of their dedication and sacrifice. We should be thankful that we are able to witness their greatness. But most of all, we should respect them as human beings and their willingness to be authentic and vulnerable in a world that isn’t. We might not win Olympic gold, but we can learn to follow the example of these strong women.

 

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One Thought to “Choosing Respect”

  1. Glenn Sheridan

    You covered it ALL, Michelle.

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