I may not get lost spinning and twisting in the air as a world-class Olympic gymnast. I will never know the enormous pressure Simone Biles experienced this week and the weight she carried as the team leader of the United States Gymnastic team. Nor will I know the stress of the racism athletes of color have experienced.
I do not share those experiences with Simone Biles.
What I do share is the experience of child sexual abuse and the misconception of how we measure the effects of childhood trauma. This misunderstanding is especially true in the backdrop of success and the pressure to achieve excellence, athletically and otherwise. The internal spinning, twisting, and separation of the mind from the body to survive are real. Unfortunately, the effects of childhood trauma are often tucked away in neat little well-concealed compartments of the mind, and exposed when stressed. I do not know if that experience played a direct role. Still, it is difficult to believe it did not play some role in the mounting pressure that forced her to step back and withdraw from the competition.
Biles was hailed as the greatest gymnast in the world and the likely winner of multiple gold medals in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. The “greatest” commentators repeated gleefully. Indeed she is the greatest, a star—beyond measure; well beyond the decimal fractioned scores of the judges—in both difficulty and execution.
Getting lost in the spinning and twisting in the lingering effects of child sexual abuse is something I know well. Sadly, this is known to a significant percentage of children in the United States. Thanks to the national think tank, CHILD USA, we know the facts. The social science data tells us that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 13 boys will be sexually assaulted before their eighteenth birthday. The reported numbers don’t lie; that means that 13% of all children will be sexually assaulted, many repeatedly. The abuse is usually by someone they know – coaches, camp counselors, teachers, doctors, religious leaders, and, most frequently, family. It is the unspoken epidemic; its ugliness makes us look away. Yet, the more we turn away from the uncomfortable facts, the more we allow them to continue. No vaccine or mask can replace the power of data and laws that protect children from the alarming ubiquity of this problem.
Most victims suffer a variety of life-long effects—depression, PTSD, educational struggles, eating and sleeping disorders, substance abuse, and suicidal ideations. Many are incarcerated, while others are quite successful. I have three degrees, testify in front of legislative committees all over the country and run a non-profit. I appear to be ok. Yet, I can be in the middle of a meeting, conversation, activity, or thought and I lose my tether. If the pressure is just right, or the words, sound or topic weigh just enough, even so slightly, to tilt my internal scales—poof! I am disconnected, spinning internally, unsure of my space or where I might land—momentarily lost. This disconnection can last seconds or hours. Either way, I am lost and exposed. Temporarily debilitated, unable to focus, rest or cover my error. I am that frozen child—trying to manage and conceal my crash.
Landing out of bounds or off the mat of normalcy is common for most survivors. It is time that NGBs, like USA Gymnastics and other institutions respond to the full effects of trauma. Most have yet to offer full protection to young athletes. As I listened to the announcers voice their disbelief in her mistakes while the cameras and mics zoomed closer in search of a headline, I kept thinking where is her protection? The United States Olympic Committee and other organizations and institutions have failed to protect their young athletes—physically and mentally. The years of abuse by Larry Nassar is their ugly stain. Whatever the reasons for Biles’ missteps, she did what national governing bodies would not do—fully protect her. As a result, USA Gymnastics may have lost a team gold medal. Still, future young elite athletes and children worldwide gained something more meaningful—a great lesson in courage and self-care.
Simone Biles is a hero; what she did last week must have been profoundly difficult, yet her execution in caring for herself was perfect. For that, she surely deserves the gold.