ST. LOUIS — As we watched Simone Biles, it felt like we were part of a pilgrimage.
We’d traveled to Missouri for the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, a huge crowd of strangers now bonded by this collective coming-together. We were yearning to witness greatness, but we also felt protective of her, invested in her. All of us knew, without needing to verbalize it, this was likely our last chance to see her competing in the flesh.
So when Simone Biles, during her balance beam routine, wobbled twice, then hopped to the floor in disgust, thousands of people inside The Dome at America’s Center let loose an audible gasp.
It was an instinctive, but unified sound — part surprise, part concern. As Biles climbed back on the beam to finish her routine, I realized it was also a noise I hadn’t heard in more than a year. All 24,000 of us were joined together in collective emotion, and we were reacting to something happening right in front of us, something we could bear witness to without the technological magic of fiber optic cables or high-definition cameras.
In that moment, we got to feel anxious together instead of alone.
We could tell, even from several hundred feet away, that Biles was trying not to cry as her routine ended. After she nailed her dismount and forced herself to smile as she saluted to the judges, she marched toward her backpack in steely silence, her competitors and coaches wisely giving her the space she needed without a word being spoken. Biles’ uncharacteristic wobble on the beam meant very little in the grand scheme of the competition. She’d easily win the women’s all-around, earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for second time, and she remains an overwhelming favorite to capture multiple gold medals in Tokyo next month. But it was clear, at least for one night, that holding oneself to standards once inconceivable in the world of gymnastics can be, at times, onerous.
I peeked to my left and tried to study the face of my 11-year-old daughter, Molly, who had inspired our personal version of this pilgrimage. By the time their kids reach a certain age, most parents, myself included, believe they can correctly interpret their kid’s emotions with little more than a glance. But that parental art has understandably become more challenging in COVID times, with faces frequently obscured by masks. This time, Molly’s eyes gave little away.
“I think Simone is just frustrated,” I said, trying to offer reassurance.
“Yeah, I just feel bad for her,” she replied. She said little else.
Molly and I had flown down from Maryland, just the two of us, finally going on the adventure we’d vowed to take more than a year ago, before the world unraveled, the trials and the Olympics were postponed, before school took place on a computer screen in her bedroom and before her own gymnastics team, and the friendships that came with it, were paused indefinitely. Seeing Simone was supposed to be a 10th birthday present, a conscious effort by me to instill an admittedly cheesy, yet entirely sincere family philosophy that experiences are invaluable, and that they will live on long after material things — like the iPhone she wanted — end up buried in a landfill.
A year later, it felt even more important to make the trip — in large part because Biles, her favorite gymnast, is likely to retire from competitive gymnastics after Tokyo. But it was more than that.
I had promised to take her to see Biles on the day she turned 10, in December of 2019.
Now she was 11, and speeding toward 12. That past year had been a blur. Nothing would feel truly normal again until that promise was fulfilled.
IT IS ADMITTEDLY difficult to find the right words that describe what it is like to watch Simone Biles perform a tumbling pass in person. Television shots and YouTube clips are the necessary, insufficient vessels the sport of gymnastics has to share her talent to the world, but what becomes clear after seeing her in person is how impossible it is, digitally, to convey scale.
Remove the box you are used to seeing her soar through, and suddenly the air around her — and her ability to travel through it, often inverted — seems limitless. To watch her on television is to marvel at the limits of athletic excellence. If you could see her, instead, do a double layout with a half twist across your living room, watch her feet as they nearly brush your ceiling, you might question Newton’s law of universal gravitation.
She is the first athlete I can remember for whom there is no push to add a qualifier to her status as the Greatest Of All Time. There is no army of sports bros demanding that we throw the word “female” in front of the declaration that she’s reached the pinnacle of the sport, no contingent of stupid arguing that, because women do not compete in the rings, the high bar, the pommel horse or the parallel bars, it diminishes her accomplishments.
There is no one counting medals or grand slam titles. If she’s Michael Jordan, there is no LeBron. If she’s Tiger Woods, there is no Jack Nicklaus. She has reached the rarified air where criticism — even the performative, contrarian kind — likely couldn’t gain traction. I had to smile when Biles strutted into the first night of the trials wearing slides embossed with the sequin outline of a goat. (She’s also worn several leotards recently with the symbol.) It didn’t feel arrogant as much as it felt earned, like a statement of fact. She hasn’t lost an all-around competition since 2013.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 26, 2021
Biles is so good, she has (in the opinion of many observers smarter than me) broken the modern scoring standard used in gymnastics, which in theory offers gymnasts a limitless possibility in the degree of difficulty category. This topic has been well covered within gymnastics’ small universe, but has been barely discussed outside of it, perhaps because of how illogical it seems when explained to a layperson.
(As a gymnastics dad, I will attempt to gym-splain it to you.)
Essentially, the International Gymnastics Federation choose to place a cap on the difficulty rating for some of Biles’ most innovative maneuvers so as to discourage other, lesser athletes from attempting them and potentially injuring themselves. Biles was, understandably, annoyed and called their reasoning “bulls—” and has continued to perform the moves in competition, despite getting what feels like partial credit.
If you’re a student of sports history, the IGF’s decision seems eerily similar to the NCAA’s 1967 rule banning the dunk in basketball, citing safety as its motivation. The rule was widely believed to have been put in place to keep UCLA’s 7-foot-2 freshman, Lew Alcindor, from dominating. The basketball establishment didn’t want Alcindor to dominate the way Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell had.
Alcindor dominated anyway. Biles has done the same.
The old guard in gymnastics is adamant that Biles’ race has nothing to do with it, and that might be true. For the most part, she’s been celebrated by the sport for taking it places few could have imagined.
For the most part.
When she won her first world championship in 2013, becoming the first Black woman in the sport’s history to do so, an Italian gymnast who finished fourth on the balance beam joked with a teammate “Maybe next time we’ll paint our skin black so then we can win too.” She then volunteered that anecdote to a reporter, presumably thinking it would find a sympathetic audience. The Italian federation apologized, then tried to explain their frustrations that Biles victory had nothing to do with race, it was actually about artistry. What was gymnastics becoming, they wondered, by placing such an emphasis on strength and power?
Having watched Biles compete, in person, last weekend, I feel emboldened to contradict: That anyone ever suggested she lacks “artistry” is laughable. What they mean but lack the courage to say, is Biles, more than any gymnast, has dragged the sport away from those who want it to remain part athletic endeavor, part beauty contest. Because what is art, really, without innovation or the fear of failure? There are times, certainly, when you fear she will crash to the floor, an Amanar or Yurchenko double pike gone wonky that puts her in peril. But she never does.
Her athleticism is so remarkable, her balance and body control so mesmerizing, it serves as a testament to its own singularity. There is no one on earth like her. She is, in the simplest terms, boundless liquid grace.
COUNTLESS MORNINGS DURING the pandemic, Molly would wake up at dawn, well before anyone else in the house, and find a quiet space, away from the rest of the world, where she could watch Biles’ routines on YouTube. It didn’t matter how old or obscure the competition was, she would find it and study it, and day-dream about what it would feel like to one day soar like that. As soon as COVID was over, she said, she wanted to return to competitive gymnastics. She didn’t even care if she never medaled again, a telling declaration considering she competes at a level where girls often “medal” when there is a four-way tie for 7th place. It was the camaraderie, and the competition, she missed.
The pandemic has been hard on a lot of kids for a lot of different reasons. Nothing our family went through could begin to approach the horrors that some families experienced: the loss of jobs, the loss of loved ones. Perspective, we told our kids, was important. You may not see it, but you are some of the lucky ones.
We are just beginning to understand, though, how much the isolation — and the upending of social circles — affected kids during the pandemic. It was easy to feel helpless as a parent, trying to trust the science but also find the balance between safety and what your eyes and gut were telling you. Group texts and Zoom hangouts were fine, but they were survival tools, not a replacement for anything real. The hardest moment of the pandemic, for me, came one night in in December of 2020, when I snuck a peak at Molly’s handwritten letter to Santa.
She didn’t care if Santa brought gifts this year. But could he, somehow, help her find a best friend?
The last year, she wrote, has been so lonely.
HOW DO YOU feel comfortable in a massive crowd again after spending more than a year avoiding them? You put your faith in the science. That’s what we told ourselves, anyway.
She asked if she could hold my hand while we wove our way through the dense crowd toward our seats. I was grateful she had not yet reached the age where she would be embarrassed by such things. “I just don’t want to lose you,” she said.
Signs everywhere inside The Dome at America’s Center informed attendees that masks were required, but there was no enforcement or even judgement, once you came through the door. Thousands took them off. It didn’t feel like defiance, just comfort. I hadn’t been to a sporting event since the Chiefs played the 49ers in the Super Bowl in Miami, but I’d been vaccinated since early April. I believe in the science, but I also wanted Molly to feel okay about our adventure, so I mostly kept mine on. She wouldn’t even lift her mask to eat a pack of Skittles I’d snuck in for her, choosing to tuck them discretely under her mask, then into her mouth, while she watched the gymnasts, her eyes alight with wonder.
Whenever Biles was active, Molly’s gaze, and everyone else’s in the arena, was locked on her. At those times, there is an energy that seems to surround her. A presence. She understands how many eyes are fixed on her at all times, but she never seems hurried or self-conscious. I recognize it, and its rarity, having spent more than 20 years writing about sports. There is a quiet hum of intensity flowing through her, the kind that once fueled Kobe and Michael, but Biles has added her own twist.
It’s not ever-present. It would be a myth to pretend it was. Biles was mad at herself on the final night of trials, admitting as much to the media after it was over, acknowledging that she felt pressure to perform. “I feel like anything other than my best will tick me off,” Biles said. “We had a huge crowd and I wanted to give them my best performance. It’s what they deserve after COVID and the year we’ve had. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case.”
But the disappointment of the balance beam seemed to fade as soon as she began her final floor exercise. Molly had asked me, prior to each event, if she could borrow my phone to record Biles’ performances. She wanted to share it with people back home and keep it forever. I volunteered to do the recording instead, insisting she appreciate the performance — in the moment — instead of worrying how it looked through a pixilated screen. I found myself sneaking looks at her after each of Biles’ tumbling passes. When it was over, the largest crowd in the history of the gymnastics trials gave her a standing ovation. Biles grinned and tried to soak it in. It had been a long year for her too. Though I am admittedly biased, I’m confident my daughter clapped and screamed harder than anyone there.
Joy, it was nice to be reminded, is infectious.
IT RAINED ALL weekend in Saint Louis, the kind of sporadic, midwestern summer storm that pummels you like a boxer, letting up for a few minutes, only to come crashing down again with renewed intensity just when you think it’s tiring. Between gymnastics sessions, we drove around in our rental car, exploring an unfamiliar city, listening to an Olivia Rodrigo album about heartache, my daughter singing along in a gentle, slightly off-key falsetto. It’s disarming sometimes to recognize pieces of yourself when you look at your kids. She is ruminative like me, and easily wounded, but also earnest in ways I cherish.
Molly had one request before we left town. She’d seen a picture Biles had posted on Instagram early in the week of herself, her back to the camera, looking up at the Gateway Arch, the city’s most famous landmark. Could we find where Simone had taken the picture and try to recreate it?
can’t believe this week I’ll be competing in my second Olympic Trials. What a dream ✨ pic.twitter.com/mfuUbXZr52
— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) June 22, 2021
There was, mercifully, a break in the rain when we arrived near the arch. Sunlight was bouncing off the buildings. We knew it wouldn’t last, so a weird sense of urgency crept over us. Where was she sitting when she took it? Which direction was she facing? There was an American flag in the foreground. Was she behind the arch, down by the Mississippi River or in front of it facing East?
Eventually, we realized Biles had shot it from across the street, sitting on the steps of The Old Courthouse. On our way up the stairs, I noticed a plaque engraved into the granite, and so I stopped to read it. It was here, at this courthouse, that Dred and Harriet Scott filed suit, suing for their freedom in 1846. The Supreme Court eventually ruled on their case in 1857, declaring by a 7-2 vote that African Americans were not citizens of the United States.
Had Biles seen the plaque as she climbed the stairs? It would have been hard to miss. What must it have felt like for her, I wondered, to stand here as a beloved Olympian, and contemplate the complexity of the last 164 years? Whatever the answers might be, it wasn’t my place to ask or my story to tell. One of the easiest things to admire about Biles, when you’re raising a daughter, is that she’s unafraid to speak her mind. But she will do so only when she decides it’s time.
What I do know is, Molly and I were not the only ones who saw Biles’ picture on Instagram and wanted to recreate it. At the top of the stairs, a small crowd of girls had gathered, girls from different races and different backgrounds, and now they were patiently waiting their turn. Like my daughter, they wanted to sit where Biles had recently sat, and imagine what it must feel like to be that fearless, to be capable of so many extraordinary things.