Vahe Gregorian

Simone Biles among strong, courageous honorees at WIN for KC event

The headliner of the 25th WIN for KC banquet on Friday at the Kansas City Convention Center was Simone Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast ever and among the most dominant athletes of our time. And the grand finale of the event, her Q&A with emcee Holly Rowe, was a delight befitting this cause that celebrates the empowerment of girls and women through sports.

And we’ll get right back to her.

But what really makes this event an energizing and inspiring local treasure that should be spread nationally is the annual rites: the march of regional high school girls champions and the presentation of awards, told lovingly through videos.

The record crowd of 2,057 was moved by the tale of Carrie Fry Robinson, winner of the Kissick Construction Game Changer Award for her work in partnership with Global FC to provide free soccer clinics to refugee girls living in Kansas City.

The audience was uplifted by the story of Sania Cay, recognized with the Children’s Mercy Rising Star Award, who once was the only minority in the pool and at 14 years old now swims competitively with aspirations to be an Olympian and role model for girls at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kansas City.

It was touched by the deeds of Jackie Frost, the recipient of the Hallmark Leadership Award for her mission to help struggling competitors through triathlons, and it admired the work of Bernadette Wagner, the UMB Lifetime Sportswoman Award winner for her 45 years in coaching.

Then there was the standing ovation for Tatsiana “Tanya” Khvitsko, winner of the Lockton Courage Award. Because of radiation exposure after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Belarus native was born with less than half of each leg and almost no fingers. As a young girl she came to Kansas City to receive prosthetic legs, but it wasn’t until she was a senior at Mid-America Nazarene that she was fitted for running prosthetics.

“Twenty-one and running for the very first time, and to me it felt like I was not running, I was flying,” she said in the video, smiling and adding, “And technically I was flying because I have no feet.”

Those moments resonated deeply, as well-put — in an unscientific poll — by a woman leaving the luncheon who said Khvitsko made her feel like she can do anything … while she knows she can’t do what Biles does.

Biles, though, embodies motivation in so many other ways, with 14 gold medals in World Championship competitions and four golds at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Part of her majesty, which will be on display here during the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships in August at Sprint Center, is the grace to somehow make it look easy.

Which it’s anything but. From the unfathomable work that went into it appearing natural to the fact the sport wasn’t necessarily second nature to her.

“Everything she did was ugly,” Aimee Boorman, her first coach in Houston, said with a laugh in Rio. “She couldn’t control any landing. She could do big skills (in the air) and then would land and bounce 15 feet backward. ... She couldn’t stay on the beam to save her life. No bar, because her hands were so small.”

Because she was determined and impassioned, at 21 now “no bar” pretty well describes what Biles has done in gymnastics and made her every move of interest internationally.

During her time on stage with Rowe, the effervescent Biles shared some of her personality: She loves to sing but knows she’s tone deaf; her favorite food is double pepperoni pizza with a stuffed crust; Serena Williams is the person she admires most outside her circle; she so hates being late that she wants to pass out even when she just might be tardy.

And she offered advice to the young women who surely will face moments of doubt and hardship.

She urged family and inner circles of athletes to be supportive “because you may not know what’s going on in their lives” and to persevere through the “lowest of lows.”

Alas, she knows too well about the lowest of lows because of the horrifying Larry Nassar molestation scandal. On this day of celebration and encouragement, Biles didn’t want to discuss the tragedy on stage.

But beforehand she spoke of her own experience being sexually assaulted by Nassar, the former team doctor, which she revealed a year ago with #MeToo posts on her social-media accounts.

“For the longest time, I blamed myself, and I feel like the difference between a victim and survivor is that you come out of it and you feel empowered,” said Biles, adding that she still goes to therapy once or twice a month and takes anti-anxiety medication.

While she called Nassar’s trial and sentence of up to 175 years in prison a step in the healing process, she said, “But, you know, that’s something that will stick with all of us forever.”

It wasn’t quite the right topic for this audience on this day.

But her bravery in coming forward was why she was part of the group of more than 140 athletes who spoke out against Nassar and were honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2018 ESPYs.

And it’s part of what made her an important guest on this always-special occasion celebrating the empowerment of girls and women through sports under the umbrella of the Kansas City Sports Commission.

“The journey is long,” Biles said, “but it’s definitely been worth it.”

Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.