Gymnast Simone Biles Is More Than Her Trauma

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Gymnast Simone Biles Is More Than Her Trauma

Imani Gandy

In a tweeted statement, the Olympic gold medalist talked about the pain of abuse by a trusted U.S. team doctor. But her story of abuse shouldn't drown out her achievements.

Gymnast Simone Biles released a statement on Twitter this week that confirmed what many had suspected: Like so many female athletes whose care was entrusted to Dr. Larry Nassar, she had suffered sexual abuse at his hands.

Nassar, the now-disgraced sports medicine doctor believed to have assaulted more than 130 female athletes, pleaded guilty in a Michigan court to sexually assaulting seven girls, three of them under the age of 13, according to CNN. (He was also sentenced to 60 years in prison last December stemming from federal child pornography charges.)

Nassar served as sports medicine doctor at Michigan State University (MSU) where he abused patients. He was fired in September 2016 after complaints poured in. He also served as the sports medicine doctor for USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for the sport. He preyed on young gymnasts at the famed Karolyi Ranch, the training center for elite gymnasts. In his capacity as Team USA’s doctor, he accompanied the women’s gymnastics team to the Olympics—from the 1996 games in Atlanta until the 2012 games in London—where he allegedly continued to prey on his patients. USA Gymnastics fired him in 2015. 

On Monday afternoon, the day before Nassar’s sentencing hearing began, Biles tweeted a screenshot of a statement about her abuse and its emotional aftermath under one word and one hashtag: “Feelings… #MeToo.”

(#MeToo refers to the phrase first coined in 2007 by Tarana Burke to encourage women of color to speak out about sexual assault. The phrase was popularized a decade later in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.)

Biles’ note immediately went viral, so much so that one writer at Slate, Rebecca Schuman, said the statement could be “her greatest legacy.”

With all respect to Schuman, whose article about Biles is well worth reading as is her article detailing how Nassar was able to get away with sexual abuse for nearly two decades, Biles’ legacy will always be that she—a Black woman—became in 2016, the best gymnast ever. Full stop. She began her journey to Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro with three world championships already under her belt. And by the end of the games, she had clinched an all-around individual gold medal and helped her team, affectionately dubbed the Final Five, win a shared gold. She is, by Mary Lou Retton’s estimation, the best gymnast of all time (Retton was the first U.S. woman to win the Olympics individual all-round gold medal back in 1984).

That should be her legacy.

That is her legacy.

“Most of you know me as a happy, giggly, and energetic girl. But lately … I’ve felt a bit broken and the more I try to shut off the voice in my head the louder it screams,” Biles’ statement reads.

“I am not afraid to tell my story anymore. I too am one of the many survivors that was sexually abused by Larry Nassar. Please believe me when I say that it was a lot harder to first speak those words out loud than it is now to put them on paper. There are many reasons I have been reluctant to share my story, but I know now it is not my fault.”

It was a powerful statement, one that shone a light on one of the biggest sexual harassment scandals that, according to recent interviews with several of Nassar’s victims, few people before this week were talking about.

Alanna Vagianos of HuffPost spoke to a group of Nassar’s survivors, each of whom felt that Nassar’s crimes had flown under the radar until famed Olympic gymnasts like Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney began to speak out.

“I haven’t sensed the outrage,” Larissa Boyce told HuffPost. Boyce alleges that Nassar abused her from 1997 to 2001, beginning when she was 16.

Another survivor of Nassar’s abuse, Alexis Alvarado, says that her trauma and the trauma of women like her—those who aren’t famous Olympians—has gone ignored.

“A lot of people seem to believe it’s only Olympians that this [abuse] happened to, which isn’t true,” she said.

And yet another survivor and one of the plaintiffs suing Nassar, MSU, and USA Gymnastics, Morgan McCaul compared the MSU scandal to the Penn State child abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky and wondered why the MSU scandal has barely made a blip on society’s radar.

“I think it plays into the importance that we put on male athletics versus female athletics,” McCaul told HuffPost.

“This is a case of gymnasts and dancers and figure skaters, not football players or basketball players. I think it’s sexism, to be honest. There’s no other explanation for why this many women have come forward and it’s not big news.”

It’s hard to deny that discussions about Harvey Weinstein and former U.S. Sen. Al Franken have dominated the conversation.

And to the extent that Biles’ speaking out when she did—while we’re in the midst of a national conversation about sexual assault and #MeToo—helped refocus attention on to Nassar’s abuse, that’s a good thing.

But that doesn’t make it her legacy. At least it shouldn’t.

Dozens of athletes—including Olympic gymnasts—spoke out before Simone Biles did. Last March, three retired gymnasts—Dominique Moceanu, Jessica Howard, and Jamie Dantzscher—testified before Congress about the USA Gymnastics culture, which fostered and allowed Nassar’s abuse to go on for so many years. That is not to diminish Biles’ statement or the courage it took for her to speak out. But why must it be Biles’ legacy? Why not Raisman’s? Or Maroney’s?

Schuman provides an answer: It’s because Biles intends to compete in the summer games in Tokyo in 2020 and still must navigate the political minefield that is the governing body of Team USA, including returning to the Karolyi training center where abuse occurred (USA Gymnastics has since announced that they are cutting ties with the Karolyi Ranch).

I understand that makes her fight more courageous, but it also probably makes her trauma more visceral. Let’s not contribute to it by saddling her with a legacy that focuses on her abuse rather her achievements.

Simone Biles is more than a survivor. She’s more than the sum of the pain she has suffered.

She’s a gymnast. And quite possibly the best one in the history of the sport. That’s her legacy.