Back in 1996, the answer was nothing. That was the year 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu became the youngest gold medalist in the history of American Olympic gymnastics. I had her picture taped to my bedroom wall. I loved her ponytail. I loved her scrunchies. I loved how fast she flew down the 82-foot runway toward the vault. I was 12, and I was captivated. Dominique was part of the Magnificent Seven, the United States Olympic teen-dream squad for that year’s Atlanta Games. Dominique was the smallest of the group, America’s 72-pound princess, Team USA’s adorable little mascot.
Millions of people were watching the broadcast when she hit her skull against the balance beam — the crown of her head landing where her foot was supposed to go. Commentators gasped in collective concern, but Dominique hopped right back up to finish, nary a tear on her face — resilient, unflappable, a nation at its best! A couple of minutes passed, and she was in the floor final. Now, in slow-motion replay of the footage, it’s easier to grasp the impact of bone against padded wood, of what that kind of collision might do to a prepubescent neck. At the time, Dominique also had a tibial stress fracture. Twenty-five years later, her perceived heroism, the quality of “toughness” she showed that was shared by generations of her teammates, revealed itself to be something much uglier — a decision to keep going that was never really her decision. A choiceless “choice” foisted upon a child by a circuitry of coaches and family members, and instituted by an organization that enabled all of it — USA Gymnastics.
It feels like old, weary news now, but in 2016, when a local newspaper’s reporting unearthed a vile, decades-long cover-up of sexual abuse within the national governing body of gymnastics, it blew the edifice of the whole operation right off. Suddenly, we were forced to confront the idea that some of the things that make the sport so spectacular to watch — the teeny tiny superhuman feats of strength and mobility, the way the bodies seemingly revoke the laws of gravity, the elegance of ballet and the joy of acrobatics packed into adrenaline-fueled ten-second events — were the same things delivered to us by injured children in leotards. Children who, in the cold, raw light of day, had been exploited, their pain ignored at every authoritative turn.
Each new report from the Indianapolis Star that year blasted a fresh hole into a system of complicity, of multiple entities who bankrolled and subsequently protected USA Gymnastics’ former team doctor Larry Nassar. Nassar, the bespectacled, cheery-voiced pedophile who had been given years of unsupervised resources and titles and promotions and access — most of all, access — to girls. He was their medical professional, a paternal caretaker. He treated with one hand and violated with the other. But if Nassar was the familial abuser, a hidden-in-plain-sight predator in a schlubby polo and khakis, then USA Gymnastics played the role of complicit family, concerned with guarding resources and reputation above all else.
When I see images of Nassar, I gag a little. It’s a small wince, a nervous compulsion, really, more than anything else. I do the same thing when I look at photos of my dead father, or when I hear his first name, or when an older man stands close to me on the sidewalk. In 2018, when he was still alive, I sent an email to one of his relatives. I used the word pedophile to describe him to her. The three of us had dinner together one night in 2008, my very first time around him as an adult. He and I didn’t speak to each other or make direct eye contact, but I did look at his face when I knew he wasn’t looking. I had flown in for the visit earlier that day, and when I saw him, standing at the end of the TSA entryway in front of security like a rubberized giant, I froze. I froze again in 2018, in front of that relative, the same one who had read my email, who had been there when I was a baby, who saw my mother lose her court case to terminate my father’s visitation rights, who at the time just assumed my mother was yet another scorned gold digger out for blood. The relative I had come to re-know in my 20s, who would eventually hold my hand through graduate school and living abroad and appendicitis, who would become my actual family. But for a moment, in that 2018 conversation, her voice grew flat and cold: “So what happened? Did he grope you?” Is she angry? I thought to myself. “N-no, he, um, he did other stuff,” and I trailed off. We kept talking, but the sound became ambient noise; I drifted out of the conversation, nodding along as she went on about how my father had always been difficult and had always had “weird ideas.” My father died six months later. After the burial, I kept thinking about that dinner from a decade earlier, where he was seated across the table. Where I could have asked him to pass the bread bowl if I’d wanted. I could have said, “Who are you?” or “What happened?” Instead, I said nothing, and back in the hotel, when it was just me in the room on the couch, I projectile-vomited onto the wall.
Last Tuesday, Biles, the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history, withdrew from the Tokyo 2020 women’s team all-around after faltering on her vault routine. Simone. The GOAT. The hero. Not only did she withdraw but she withdrew piecemeal; she withdrew one event at a time. The internet exploded. An irritated sense of “What now?” flooded the waves of commentary. Surely, this sport had no shocks left to give. But there it was: Simone the brave. Simone the quitter. Simone the advocate. Taking time out for her mental health. Simone Biles, who won medals with broken toes. Biles, the 24-year-old Black woman. Biles, who, after a year and a half of a global pandemic and racial reckoning, who had also survived years of Nassar’s sexual abuse, returned to the negligent organization under whose watch it had happened.
USA Gymnastics tweeted its support of her decision.
In 1998, two years after her paralysis-defying performance, Moceanu filed for emancipation from her parents, alleging years of financial and emotional abuse. She quickly went from “darling!” to spoiled, histrionic liar. A decade later, Moceanu went on HBO’s Real Sports to reveal that she had had other abusers, too: her then-coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, the married Romanian duo, the notorious gold-medal makers. The same ones who birthed Nadia Comaneci’s unprecedented perfection on the uneven bars at the 1976 Montreal Olympics through a careful regimen of starvation, beatings, and humiliation, and who defected to the United States in 1981. The Karolyis debuted the fruits of their philosophy of “Train at our ranch in complete isolation. What could possibly go wrong?” with U.S. gymnast Mary Lou Retton’s all-around gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Nassar was frequently on hand at the ranch, the designated national gymnastics training site for 16 years.
After Nassar’s arrest and sentencing, the arrests of affiliated parties, the seven-day, 156-person-long victim-impact-statement readings, and the two subsequent documentaries about the abuse and its cover-up, there was a sense that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games might restore some of that good ol’ fashioned Americana team spirit, that the Olympics could get back to being what the Olympics are all about. After all, Nassar is in prison. The former USA Gymnastics president has resigned. The Karolyi Ranch was sold. USA Gymnastics (currently bankrupt) has a new, female president, one who is eager to move beyond the horror of its past. The organization has updated its misconduct-reporting policies and has promised to do better. In 2020, it announced a bankruptcy plan that included $215 million in payments to Nassar’s victims (the pandemic ended up slowing down the negotiations). The people left in charge are not the ones who directly abused the girls, but they are the ones left to rage at. It is a clash of worlds after the dam breaks — one upheld by decades of silence and pretending; the other, slow and angry and uncertain.
I was already on thin ice with my relative when I first wrote publicly about my experience with my father. In the year following his death, I skipped family get-togethers on late notice. I deliberately avoided phone calls. I asked for space to make sense of what had happened. I didn’t show up. I sensed that I was already supposed to be over “it,” that a coffin in the ground meant all was officially in the past, and yet somehow I was only getting started. My one meager stammering from two years earlier had counted, apparently, for far more than I wanted when it came to how vocal I was actually allowed to be. After all, I had “won.” A comfortable lifestyle, a fully funded education, years of high-end restaurants and travel: Wasn’t “winning” enough? Apparently not. My relative and I stopped speaking altogether. My disclosure was celebrated, but the ongoing recalibration I needed — the space, the time — the ones I was now choosing, were not.
In the immediate aftermath of the Nassar reckoning, there were sides of history to jump on, people to blame, laws to change, promises to make about never, ever traveling back to that old way of oppression again. But it was only after Biles’s first withdrawal, the one when she left the arena to change and returned in sweats to cheer on her teammates, that fans and, more important, USA Gymnastics, saw an athlete’s new autonomy over how and when she competes, with or without injury or gold medals or public approval. They — we — saw her operate against the mechanisms of a dying machine.
It would be days after her initial withdrawal before we would learn what Biles had decided to do about the balance beam this morning, the final Olympic event for women’s gymnastics and the presumed final Olympic event of Biles’s career. Maybe she knew ahead of time what decision she would make, or maybe she didn’t — she just knew it was hers to finally make. Simone the athlete. Simone the survivor. Simone the adult.