When Simone Biles said she wouldn't be continuing in the Women's Team Finals after a bad landing on her vault, it certainly came as a surprise. When she pulled out of the all-around finals, it came as a shock.
This is a 24-year old woman who has competed while passing a kidney stone and once qualified for the World Championships while competing on a broken toe. She's also someone who hasn't lost an all-around title that she competed in since 2013--a span that includes eight National Championships, five World Championships, and the 2016 Olympic All-Around Gold Medal. By any standard, that's a pretty successful record.
If you think she's weak, or a quitter, you haven't been paying attention.
It's understandable, then, that the expectations for Biles were high. She is an athlete seemingly capable of things that no other human can do. She was not only the favorite to be the first woman to repeat as all-around champion, it wasn't even expected to be close. She's just that good.
The funny thing about all of that success is that it starts to become more than an accomplishment, and instead becomes the thing by which we define her. That's true of many athletes, even if there are few who dominated their sport quite as Biles has.
The problem is that it isn't healthy, especially when success or accomplishments become the thing you use to define yourself. Overnight, in a social media post, the six-time Olympic medalist shared a heartwarming statement that also revealed a brutal truth about success.
the outpouring love & support I've received has made me realize I'm more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.-- Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) July 29, 2021
That's a lesson that everyone should hear and learn. It can be easy to believe that you are defined entirely by your accomplishments or your job. It can be easy to think that your value is determined by the degree to which you are successful at what you do.
Certainly, that's true when you are a high-profile Olympic athlete, with the weight of expectations that anything less than perfection is a failure. If you can't perform, you failed. More than that, you are a failure. That belief is not just unhealthy, it's toxic, and yet it's exactly how we measure ourselves.
That's why it's so brutal. Most people have bought into the lie that you are defined by your accomplishments. That every success adds value to who you are, and every failure exposes you personally.
It's also wrong, not to mention dangerous. I don't mean that success is dangerous, or even that pushing yourself to succeed isn't worthwhile. No one who ever accomplished anything didn't have a moment where they had to dig deep and press through adversity, pain, and challenges. There is no glory without struggle. That's why we consider them champions.
Except, there's also no glory in abusing yourself, or pushing beyond the breaking point. The fact that we believe there is, isn't a virtue.
I know there are people who aren't interested in hearing that lesson because they are stuck on the idea that Biles is a quitter, or that she failed her team. To that, I would suggest that it might be good to give her the benefit of the doubt. And, when she says that she's not in a place where she can compete, that doesn't make her weak, or a quitter. It makes her human.
It makes her someone who has, like all of us, had to cope and deal with completely upturning our lives for the last 18 months. Except, in her case, she was training for the most high-profile event of her life. An event for which the expectations have come to define her. It really shouldn't be controversial to say that Biles, and everyone, should be given the ability to decide what's best for herself, without the pressure of our expectations.
It's good to celebrate people who overcome great obstacles to succeed. And, we should celebrate the people who accomplish great things. But, we shouldn't define them by it.