Friday Follies: Simone Biles, Suni Lee, LeAnn Rimes, and Our Own Personal Bests.
We’ve all heard by now the stunning news that Simone Biles, our astonishing American gymnast, has dropped out of this year’s Olympics in Tokyo. It should have been her finest moment—everything she had built up to—but something was off and she knew it. She didn’t wait; she stopped it cold and only she knows why.
Gymnastics is a dangerous calling; one wrong move and the damage to a body could be permanent. A big part of a gymnast’s training is in acknowledging and overcoming the fear. Simone seemed to have done it and then some. Her moves, her twists, her time in the air, all but defying gravity…
Watching her is like watching magic. But this time, in Tokyo, whatever it is that allows her to perform gymnastic feats beyond anyone’s imagination failed her. She felt it. She knew it was gone, and after one flawed performance she gave herself permission to stop.
What courage it took to turn away from all she’s ever wanted—her pinnacle—in order to give herself time to heal, both physically and mentally. And by stopping when she did, she opened a dialogue that everyone in her field now says was sorely needed. Who owns a young athlete’s body? Who gets to keep control? Simone Bile said she did and the sports world erupted.
The talk will go on for days, weeks, years, and she’ll be remembered, not as the star who flamed out just as she reached the heights, but as the star who chose not to take risks, not to allow her body to be destroyed in order to achieve someone else’s personal best.
Read Will Bunch’s provocative piece on Biles in the Philadelphia Enquirer. It’s here.
(Double-click on the link in the video below. It will take you to the Simone Biles video. Sorry. I don’t know how else to get around this and it’s so worth watching.)
But let’s not forget about Suni Lee, the American gymnast who went on to take the Gold in the all-around, winning every gymnastic event. How could we not be proud of her? She’s amazing! But there again, the specter of Biles hung over her win. She admitted later that as long as Simone was performing, nothing better than second place had ever entered her mind.
So how did she feel when she took the Gold? Did she feel she deserved it? Oh, I hope so. And I hope nobody was cruel enough to ask her that question.
The Hmong community, her family and friends, were beside themselves with joy, but nobody was happier than Suni’s father, Houa John Lee, her mentor and her early coach, now paralyzed from the waist down after a tree-trimming accident in 2019. When she was young he built a balance beam in their backyard and worked with her hour after hour, day after day, until he knew she needed a better coach.
And here she is:
( Again, double-click on the link to YouTube to watch the video. Sorry.)
These two young women have now made Olympic history. They’re both Gold Medal winners with extraordinary talent, and the world is theirs. Suni Lee will almost certainly go on with her career. Simone Biles is still considering hers.
The magnificence of Simone Biles will live on as long as we have film and video and the devices on which to watch her. Her name will live on and she’ll never have to prove anything again. Unless she wants to.
She’s been injured many times, both physically and psychically. She could stop now and still be Simone Biles, the Greatest Gymnast on Earth. She could move from the balance beam to coaching or writing—or singing. Whatever would put her in a place that feels right for someone like her; someone who worked her entire life to reach this pinnacle, but may recognize now that the danger and the pain are no longer worth it.
I want her to go on being that person she was striving to be long before the crowds and the medals. When she was working toward her personal best. She has earned her place. And she has earned her peace.
And now I come to LeAnn Rimes, who isn’t a gymnast and has never had to compete at the Olympics but has been dazzling audiences since she was a pre-teen and is still at the top of her game. She says she sang the song below when she was a ‘little bitty kid’ and as I watch her sing it now, some 25 years later, I see a star still giving it her all. As if every song deserves her best and she works her heart out to deliver. If she quit tomorrow her legacy would live on. She will always be LeAnn Rimes.
I could have chosen any number of my own LeAnn Rimes favorites, but I chose ‘Unchained Melody’ for a reason. It’s a song I sang when I could sing. I sang it often, always with the idea that the more I sang it, the better I would get. It was going to be my personal best, but before I could perfect it I lost my singing voice. No medical expert could tell me why. First it was the high notes, then it was the pitch. Singing, the thing I loved most, was lost to me. Gone.
It broke my heart. I gave up singing and I thought I would never get over it, but it turns out I didn’t give up trying to find my creative voice. I found it in my writing. I’ll never be famous, I’ll never win medals, but I’m doing what I love to do and that is so totally enough.
Now I leave it to artists who inspire me and give me shivers. No regrets. Not when I hear something like this: