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Happy Warrior: The Art of Being Simone Biles

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simone biles, black athletes, black excellence

Martial artist and philosopher Bruce Lee used to say one of the most powerful weapons one can have is to be underestimated by one’s opponents. By that measure, Simone Biles has a nuclear arsenal. When her four foot eight inch frame first stepped into a gym as a misplaced seeming newbie, who really saw her coming? If any of us passed her anonymously in a crowd or overheard her talking at a bar, would we sense the immeasurable power within? Do not let the bubbly, carefree presentation fool you. Behind the chipper demeanor lies one of the most inspiringly ruthless competitive spirits the world may ever see.

Ruthless. “Having no pity”. “Merciless”. Ruthlessness as a concept normally applies to how a person treats others. In athletics and all forms of ethical competition, ruthlessness is a measure of how one treats oneself and what one demands of oneself. When it comes to “getting it done”, Simone Biles is an un-compassionate tyrant; a despotic queen reigning over a realm of one lonely but dedicated subject: Simone Arianne Biles.

As a fan of excellence, I find myself especially fixated on Simone Biles’ vault. She has a signature move that is already in the popular gymnastics lexicon and is soon to be officially named after her at the next updating of International Gymnastics Federation rules.

“The Biles” is built around a gymnastics move called “the Layout”, an end-over-end stretched somersault flip where the body is kept straight and the horizontal axes of the body remain parallel to the floor at all times, as though one is laying down, a human coin flipping in space. “The Biles” involves combining two layouts with a half twist to set up what is called a “blind” landing at the finish.

You run at breakneck speed, launch your body into the air with enough force to flip over twice, use a very slight arm tuck to twist your body at the last moment, and land, heels first, without ever getting to see the floor on your approach. The entire sequence takes mere seconds. The thresholds between success, simple failure, and serious injury are shaped by fractions of a second. Months of training for a major competition. Years of learning and practice. All decided in fractions of a second.

Failures on the vault can be catastrophic. If you’re lucky, you merely land on your backside as Biles did earlier this week. If you’re unlucky, there stands a Christmas list of body part injuries waiting in the wings. Wrists. Tendons and ligaments. Ankles and knees. Even the spine. If you’re unlucky, any and all of these injuries stand waiting to attack you and your life as you know it. They are waiting to attack. Whether they get their chance and how much of a chance they get will be decided in fractions of a second.

An ambitious gymnast cannot simply approach the vault. Not with so many attackers waiting. One must attack back. One must attack the vault. And attack the nether. Between maximal expenditure of power and fulsome assertion of control.

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One must attack gravity, as a means of initiating a negotiation. And one must attack time. In the chasm between gymnastic takeoff and landing, time becomes both an instant and an eternity. One must embrace both the instant and the eternity to vault successfully. While negotiating with gravity and time so they’ll put you where you need to be to stick the landing. A vault isn’t just a moment. A vault isn’t even a lifetime. It’s several. All defined by pitched combat, with merciless foes.

When one reflects on what it takes to attempt much less land maneuvers like “The Biles” under the pressure of national and international competition, suddenly Simone’s dominance in the rest of the gymnastics world seems less a mystery.

Of course a warrior ruthless enough to vault the way she vaults would have also have mastered the balance beam and floor exercise. Of course such a ruthless warrior would push herself and hire an extra coach to also become a medal-winning contender in the uneven bars, her least favorite event. Of course such a ruthless warrior would become a four-time world all-around champion. Of course such a ruthless warrior would become a five-time United States champion. Of course such a ruthless warrior would become the most decorated American gymnast of all time by the age of twenty-one. Of course such a ruthless warrior would not only survive the unspeakable violations of Dr. Larry Nassar, but would help hold the USA Gymnastics world to account in the wake of his long overdue downfall. Of course such a ruthless warrior would hold the new USA Gymnastics President to account for tone-deafness regarding police brutality and those who dare speak against it. 

Many of us cannot fathom assembling a professional and social resume like Biles, at all, much less at such a young age. Her achievements and matter-of-fact sense of self speak to the power of supported ambition.

To be ambitious is to live in a declared state of war at all times, war with internal and external obstacles that want to deny the fulfillment of your vision at all costs. Biles lives for battle. When you listen to her interviews, it is hard not to be enchanted by her light-hearted unpretentiousness, but listen closely to the content of even her most casual remarks and you will hear someone who has clearly made her peace with ruthlessness as the cost of meaningful, sustained success. 

Ruthlessness in not letting falls and minor disappointments disrupt the mindset needed to win medals. Ruthlessness in listening to your body and your soul enough to respect when both need a break. Ruthlessness in working through pain, including a kidney stone that necessitated a trip to the emergency room only days before her most recent event. Ruthlessness in checking one’s ego, and temporarily shelving “The Biles” in favor of “The Cheng” a slightly less demanding maneuver that still resulted in almost a full point’s lead and gold medal in the vault final. Ruthlessness in putting the team’s needs first because the team’s success is what matters. Ruthlessness is setting a strong example for one’s teammates and encouraging them when they rise to the occasion. Ruthless in picking your battles as the down payment on winning the war.

Behold a happy warrior. May we all find similar joy and victory in our own battlefields.