Content warning: abuse
On July 23, 1996, a Jewish woman clinched the gold medal for the American women’s gymnastics team on home turf at the Atlanta Olympics. Kerri Strug, then 18, was up on vault in the last rotation of the women’s team final in the hope of helping the U.S. women win their first-ever team gold. It’s a scene most of us know well: Strug landed the vault before sitting down and then limping over to the coaching staff, who told her unequivocally, “We need this.” She pulled herself together, performed a clean second vault, then sat down to signal her injury. Marta Karolyi and another staff member helped Strug to her feet, balancing her between their shoulders as they passed her off to the team’s official doctor, her mouth twisted in a scream.
We now understand that the doctor in question will live the rest of his life in incarceration, having sexually abused more people than anyone else in the recorded history of sports.
I’m not interested in rehashing whether Kerri Strug should have performed her second vault, though after Simone Biles withdrew from multiple Olympic finals last week due to mental and physical struggles, it’s clear that Twitter is game to use Strug as an counterexample of triumph against all odds. It’s true that the U.S. women did not need Strug’s second vault to mathematically win the competition, though they likely did not know this in the moment, as the Russian team had one more gymnast left to perform and math is hard when thousands of people are screaming at you in an arena. It’s also true that Strug wanted to qualify for the individual all-around finals, which, at the time, were decided based on the team final performances and required gymnasts to perform two vaults. (This is not the case anymore.) She qualified, but pulled out due to her injury, as she couldn’t even walk to the medal podium and was instead carried by Bela Karolyi, a man who has since admitted on television that he physically assaulted his gymnasts in Romania. Strug’s 1996 teammate, Dominique Moceanu, has said that abuse from both the Karolyis continued in the States.
The only conversation I feel the need to litigate now is whether Kerri Strug felt that she could have said no.
Could she have said no to Marta and Bela Karolyi without facing punishment, which we know now included things like food restrictions, being pulled from finals in favor of teammates, and humiliated and body-shamed in front of coaches and other gymnasts? Would it matter if she said she wouldn’t perform the second vault, now that we know that the man in charge of her medical care sexually assaulted gymnasts, from the club to the Olympic level, under the guise of treating back and pelvic muscles? (Strug has not addressed whether she was abused by Larry Nassar. Regardless, about 500 people, mostly women and girls, have accused him of sexual abuse, most of which he perpetrated against minors.)
So when Simone Biles went onto the competition floor during the women’s team final last week, balked a vault such that she almost landed on her knees, and then told her coaches, teammates, and a medical staff member that she would not be competing for the rest of the night, I did not think about how Strug gritted her teeth and brought home gold despite the threat of further injury. I thought about how relieved I was that we did not have to see that again.
Biles has spoken about receiving support from her personal coaches and said that one official told her to keep competing when she decided not to continue. (She did not name them.) She qualified for the all-around final and each apparatus final — a rare feat — but then pulled out from all but balance beam, where she came back with poise and confidence to win the bronze medal. People have penned op-eds in support of Biles, and she has received widespread social media plaudits from athletes and public figures. However, some detractors remain loud, mostly on the right of the political spectrum. A variety of media outlets have jumped on the bandwagon of putting mental health first, though this may be the result of a miscommunication from USA Gymnastics and Team USA, as the former first reported that Biles was dealing with a “medical issue” and the latter emphasized her need to focus on “mental wellness over all else.” The “twisties” — a manifestation of focal dystonia that Biles is navigating and that makes sports like gymnastics or diving even more dangerous —exists somewhere in between physical and mental health, described both as a “mental block” and a neurological condition that makes it harder for athletes to access literal muscle memory.
It’s clear from both her vault in the team final and her subsequent Instagram training videos that Biles’ mental health issues are not just the result of a bad day or a bout of anxiety. But even if stress, depression, and anxiety were the main culprits of Biles not having the Olympics she wanted, I call a reverse dayenu — that would be enough for her to pull out of competition, and she wouldn’t have to justify that decision to the public.
When Biles came home from Rio as a five-time Olympic medalist in 2016, she didn’t only return to fame and acclaim; she also returned to a world that had just learned about Nassar and the potential involvement of USAG officials. She returned to learn that USAG had not only known about Nassar’s abuse for at least a year, but hadn’t told her this in the hopes of profiting off her post-Rio success. (Biles has spoken about not coming to terms with the abusive nature of the treatment for some time.) So when Biles chose to return to competitive gymnastics in 2018, she did so knowing that she would have to represent a federation that had put her in danger, had actively intervened to hide that fact, and that is still allegedly disrupting the process of justice and restoration. When else have we seen high-profile Olympians compete while in such a publicly contentious relationship with their federation? If she had gone to Tokyo and dedicated a middle finger-raised routine to USAG, gymnastic fans would have cheered.
So maybe Biles had a trauma response to being at the Olympics again, or maybe her twisties came out of nowhere, as they’re known to do — it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a woman felt comfortable to make a healthy decision to prioritize her health — her life — maybe without fear of repercussions. Strug was commended for hitting under pressure in Atlanta, and while her performance showed an inhuman-like strength, the lionization of athletes competing while injured — physically or mentally — only fed the fire of USAG’s push to win over all else.
We know that the mental effects of everything that Biles and others have endured are lifelong; in the middle of writing this, 2012 Olympian McKayla Maroney began sharing new details on social media about the sexual and emotional abuse she suffered under both Nassar and Marta Karolyi, apparently triggered by watching the women’s vault final. Aly Raisman, our favorite Jewish Olympic champion, has also spoken both about the necessity of centering mental health and the struggles she’s had to reclaim stability both as a sexual abuse survivor and as someone adjusting to life beyond elite sports. She’s open on social media about how gardening, meditation, therapy, and her dog have provided comfort and support, which she’s needed as she continues to push for accountability at USAG by refusing to settle her lawsuit out of court.
I would’ve loved to watch Biles compete as much as anyone else going into this Olympics: She’s a nineteen-time World Champion who stood to match or break the record for most World and Olympic medals in gymnastics (though by coming back for beam, she did tie the record, with Larisa Latynina of the USSR). But before she’s an athlete, a performer, or a public figure, Biles is a person, one who has weathered storms in the public eye for years. Kerri Strug’s Olympic performance similarly shouldn’t be used as a cheap shot against Biles’ personal decisions on her own health. Rather, both should be a reminder that we’re all bound by pikuach nefesh, the principle of saving a life, whether we’re on the competition floor or watching from the couch. Life takes precedent — to paraphrase the Talmud, may Simone Biles live by gymnastics, if gymnastics is what she wants. May no one else ever die by it.