On Tuesday, Simone Biles, the best gymnast in the world, withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team competition at the Tokyo Olympics. On an upcoming episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting, Dan Kois asks his co-hosts, Jamilah Lemieux and Elizabeth Newcamp, how parents should talk to their kids about Biles’ decision when so much of parenting stresses grit, perseverance, and sticking with commitments even when they’re tough. This is an edited transcript of their conversation. Listen to the full segment when the podcast is released on Thursday.
Dan Kois: So now we have this very high-profile example of someone at the absolute top of her sport, literally the greatest gymnast of all time, bailing in the middle of the biggest competition there is. And I am struggling to figure out how to talk about this. Because while I understand the importance of mental health, and I understand applauding Simone Biles for taking care of herself in a crisis situation, I have now discovered that I apparently still have all kinds of presumably old-fashioned ideas about athletes fighting through adversity, and Olympians sticking it out for their teammates, and even playing through pain. Probably I’ve been watching too many NBC puff pieces about people winning gold, even after they tear their seventh ACL.
Jamilah Lemieux: I am so proud of Simone Biles and the courage that it took to make a decision like that in front of the world. You know, I mean, she decided that she was not able to compete to the best of her ability, and she protected herself from injury. She allowed her teammates to step up and do what they’ve trained very hard to do, and they were able to bring home a silver medal.
And considering that she’s spoken about the fact that her being a victim of Larry Nassar, you know what I mean? Her competing keeps the conversation about what he did and what he was able to do going in ways that it might not otherwise, because most of the girls that are competing are younger and would not have come through his training. So this is somebody who’s given a lot, and today what she gave was to herself. And I think by doing that, she gave to her teammates, and she gave to her country, and she set a really great example for young people everywhere.
Elizabeth Newcamp: I completely agree. You are on every commercial in America. You are on every NBC ad for the Olympics saying you’re the best, and you’re going to bring home gold. And every announcer is talking about you’re going to become the most decorated woman at the Summer Games. All of these things. And for her to say, I’m not right. If I compete, I don’t know what that does for my future.
And then not only that, but to come back and be a good teammate. Like, she doesn’t just walk away. She comes back. She tells her teammates what she’s going through. And then she says, “I’m here.” She’s handing out chalk bags. She’s giving high-fives. That to me is so much more of a role model of the person or people I want my kids to be than someone who is like amazingly gifted at doing these flips—which she is, and she works hard for that.
Kois: But fundamentally these Olympic athletes are people who have made the choice to compete at this elite level, they’ve made this kind of commitment. And I guess I feel two ways about that. One, they’re the ones who made that decision, so obviously they should and can be the ones who make the decision when they don’t feel they can compete. But I also still am having trouble getting over these ideas, like, whether it’s my kid’s commitment to her soccer team to play through the season and be with her teammates and play to the best of her ability, or an Olympian’s commitment to her teammates to give them everything that she can. When do you know or understand that you have to step back?
Lemieux: I think it’s listening to yourself and to your body, you know? A big part of this is that so much of the spectacle and the rules around sport are created and led by people that are now no longer active competitors, if they ever were. And so I think about Sha’Carri Richardson. Three women who have just kind of defined this moment for me: Sha’Carri Richardson, Naomi Osaka, and now Simone Biles. And that they’ve all openly talked about having some sort of mental health issue or challenge to face.
These people are also dealing with stuff that we don’t know about. I think it will never be fully accepted in the court of public opinion to make these kinds of choices. But if you understand that in this moment you can’t show up as your best self, and that there’s a way in which you can step back and also protect your team, I think, that is the lesson. I don’t think there’s really much else to say to our kids about what Simone did other than to look at it as an example.
And that’s not always going to be your story. Sometimes it may be the right thing for you to push through the injury, to push through the anxiety and then keep going. But when it’s not, then you have to trust that voice inside and be OK with it.
Newcamp: I think this is the discussion with your kids. The minute that she says, “This is too much,” it’s just too much. It doesn’t matter if it wouldn’t have been too much for you, it’s too much for her.
Kois: Well, I think we can all agree it would have been too much for me.
Newcamp: Yeah. I mean, I can’t even do a cartwheel.
Lemieux: Nothing about Simone Biles says to me, “You know, I was just with my crystals last night and I meditated on this and I just decided.” I think she was like, “I’m not about to go fuck up everything for myself and my team. I’m making a very difficult decision.” I think that’s the other thing, that this could not have been an easy decision.
Lemieux: But there’s nothing left for Simone Biles to do. If she did not participate in this Olympics, she would’ve still been Simone Biles.