Vahe Gregorian

Piercing words in KC reinforce Simone Biles’ stature as a survivor and inspiration

When Simone Biles won the all-around gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics to accent a case as the best gymnast in history, and one of the greatest athletes of our time, she appreciated the comparison points but had her own statement to make.

“I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps,” said Biles, who won five medals, four gold, in Rio and later won six medals at last year’s World Championships. “I’m the first Simone Biles.”

With her own powerful and unique identity forged though an improbable rise in the sport. The goat (for Greatest Of All Time) absolutely belongs on the back of the leotard she wore Wednesday at Sprint Center in preparation for this week’s U.S. gymnastics national championships. And it also made for a fine broader symbol of female empowerment for the woman seeking her sixth national title.

“I think it’s important, because you’ll go your whole entire career and everybody will tell you you’re great,” she said. “But the minute you think you’re great or you say you’re good, (it’s) like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so cocky.’ Like, ‘Cancel her.’ ”

But she stands for something more now, too — as a courageous survivor of sexual abuse who is using her profile to speak for justice and take us along on the piercing journey toward “never again” as the specter of the Larry Nassar scandal still looms.

In February here, she spoke briefly about it before her appearance as the featured guest at the WIN For KC banquet:

“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,” she said in measured words, adding that she was in therapy and taking anti-anxiety medication as one of hundreds of victims of the predatory Nassar — the former USA Gymnastics team doctor who was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for multiple sex crimes.

But perhaps indicative of the painful complications of trying to move forward from such an invasion and breach of trust from many around her, an anguished Biles on Wednesday spoke with a different sort of resonance: raw, visceral emotion that she had seldom if ever displayed before.

Asked about her tweet Sunday in which she said that “many failed us” following a senate panel citing the negligence of former U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics officials, among others, Biles first spoke of being blessed to have a platform.

“But, you know, it’s not easy coming back to the sport, coming back to the organization that has failed you,” said Biles, one of some 140 victims of Nassar to receive the ESPYs Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

The longer she spoke, the more intense her words and sentiments and voice became as it built into what you could only hope was a catharsis.

“It’s not easy being out here, because I feel like every day is a reminder of what I went through and what I’ve been through and what I’m going through and how I’ve come out of it,” she said, noting the alleged complicity of disgraced former USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny and adding, “It’s like, ‘Did you guys really not like us that much that you just couldn’t do your job?’ ”

As she spoke of how hard it is to trust new people coming in after so many she’d known for years had failed them, Biles cried. With that, she evoked the shame and horror of all this in an entirely new way:

Who to trust? How to trust? How to even begin to heal?

Now, when her body hurts, she doesn’t want to go to a doctor or get worked on by a trainer. For that matter, she typically doesn’t want to hang around practice any longer than she has to, preferring to get home to her dog or spend time with friends away from what she pointedly several times called her job. Sometimes, with the reminders inherent in any given day of gymnastics, she’d feel everything at once and either walk out of practice or not show up.

No wonder there was fury in her voice when she reiterated, “They couldn’t do one damn job. You had one job. You literally had one job, and you couldn’t protect us.”

No wonder on one hand she holds onto optimism but feels compelled to add asterisks.

That was epitomized in about every conflicted, tentative word of the answer she gave when asked about her faith in USA Gymnastics to ultimately fix things.

“I don’t know; that’s a good question,” she said. “I don’t know because everyone they bring in, you kind of put a wall up and … you almost find something wrong before an article comes out or something.

“You know, all we can do at this point is have faith that they’ll have our back and they’ll do the right thing. But at the end of the day, it’s just a ticking time bomb, and we’ll see. It’s a waiting game.”

As such, it remains to be seen how the USOC and USAG can restore their credibility and regain the faith of those they ostensibly exist to serve. But it’s encouraging that the immediate reaction of USA Gymnastics president and CEO Li Le Leung was to issue this statement:

“Simone Biles is undoubtedly the best gymnast in the world and possibly of all time. She is an outstanding representative for gymnastics and the United States. We at USA Gymnastics have made a lot of progress in strengthening our athlete safety measures and putting our athletes first, but we know we have more to do. One of our goals is for our athletes to feel comfortable in speaking up and sharing their opinions, and we are listening to what they have to say. We will continue to work hard to demonstrate to Simone and all of our athletes, members, community and fans that we are working to foster a safe, positive and encouraging environment where athlete voices are heard. We join the rest of her fans and the sport in wishing her the best of success this week at the championships.”

Beyond those words is another story for another time, though.

Now the story is this: The greatest of all time in her sport, along with all the other brave women who came forth about Nassar, speaks not just for herself but for the voiceless.

By summoning the strength to both go on and tell the hardest parts of her story, which she first revealed through #MeToo posts on her social media accounts.

Somehow, she has persevered and prospered even in the haunting wake.

It makes for an amazing addition to her legacy. It also serves as a resounding reminder that she is a survivor, not a victim.

And her presence here should inspire all the more … even as it should remind all about the catastrophic cost of unchecked evil and the neglect that further enabled it.

“It takes time, and there’s no, like, manual …” she said. “Everybody’s healing process is different, and I think that’s the hardest part.

“Maybe I should be healed or this or that. But I feel like it will be an open wound for a really long time. And it might not ever get closed or healed. But it’s what I go to therapy for, so we’ll see.”

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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.
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