Is Gymnastics Traumatizing or Healing? (By Lacy Duke)
Gymnastics is an intriguing topic and at times it has been the subject of hidden and blatant abuse. When we think about gymnastics, what comes to mind the most? Most recently, it has been about the abuse that many gymnasts have suffered from the hand of one man, Larry Nassar. But what about the great things going on? If you are a true fan of the sport, or just a fan of sports in general, maybe you have heard about the amazingly talented Simone Biles and how she is setting records. In 2019, Biles picked up her 24th and 25th World Championship medals, making her the most decorated World Champion gymnast according to Elle Magazine (Nathonson, 2019). At that same World Championship, Biles was the first to complete two new moves. In gymnastics, if you are the first to complete a new move, it is named after you.
So what does Simone Biles have to do with a sport that may contribute to trauma and promote healing from trauma at the same time? Biles, was sadly, one of the gymnast who came forward and announce that she was a victim of sexual abuse. Biles was one of the more than 300 gymnasts who came forward and spoke out about Larry Nassar sexually abusing them (Kirby, 2018). Biles, and many other gymnasts, were in a sport that directly contributed to them experiencing a severe form of trauma. A sport that failed them. It was coaches, doctors, the governing body, and the USA Gymnastics, that failed them.
In spite of this, Biles has gone through denial and pushed through her suffering to the point that she was calling out those who did not protect her. Biles admitted that she did not want to tell her parents that she was abused (Connor, 2018). She wanted to be known for her abilities as a gymnast, not as a victim of abuse. “I’m not willing to put that out there for the world to see,” she said. “They’re not going to see me as Simone the gymnast, they’re going to see me Simone the sexual abuse survivor (Today Show, 2019).” Without a doubt, Biles isn’t the first victim to feel that way and she will not be the last.
But how do you continue to participate in a sport that has been the cause of so much turmoil and was the gateway of your abuse and sent you into depression? "There's no manual," Biles said. "I feel like as a gymnast, if we're hurt or if something goes wrong, you go to the doctor or your coaches, and they tell you all the right steps to the healing process. But for this, everybody's healing process is different. And I think that's the hardest part, because I feel like maybe I should be healed. ... 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 (Voepel, 2019).” Biles continued to want to compete, but also wanted USA Gymnastics to have to answer for how they failed all the gymnasts and refused to be accountable for the situation. "It's really sad for us, because it becomes a problem whenever we work with future people," Biles said. "How can we trust them? They bring in new people all the time, and I automatically put my foot up because the people that I had known for years had failed us. So it's hard for them to bring anyone up to us. It's really hard to talk about. I just feel like ... I don't mean to cry, but it's just ... it's hard coming here for an organization and having had them fail us so many times. And we have won gold. We've done everything they asked [of] us, even when we didn't want to. And they couldn't do one damn job. You had one job. You literally had one job, and you couldn't protect us (Voepel, 2019).”
When asked about if she believed USA Gymnastics could pull it together and get back on being respected, Biles stated, "All we can do at this point is have faith that they'll have our backs and they'll do the right thing. But at the end of the day, it's just a ticking time bomb. But, we'll see. It's a waiting game. I try to focus on my job and us as the athletes out here. I know it's hard for a lot of these girls because they don't understand what's happening because they were a little bit younger. But for me to be here, it's just hard. I try not to think about it. I feel like I would focus on it a little more if I was on the outside like Aly [Raisman] and some of the other girls. But since I'm still on the inside, it just breaks my heart to read it or to see it. So I try to focus on my job, do what I'm supposed to. Come out and compete, do what I love (Voepel, 2019).”
I think that Simone uses her ability to call out USA Gymnastics as a way of healing. In March of this year USA Gymnastics tweeted a happy birthday message to Biles. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the most decorated gymnast of all time, @simonebiles! We know you will only continue to amaze us and make history!” However, Simone didn’t allow that tweet to just celebrate her. Biles used the opportunity to voice her issues with them. Biles made a birthday wish confronting them: “how about you amaze me and do the right thing… have an independent investigation (Lang, 2020).”
What can sports social workers do to help a case like this? We can look at how Biles and other gymnasts are calling for policy reform and better structure in the USA Gymnastics organization and take initiative to assist them in perfecting their policy. Sport social workers can use the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics to assist the USA Gymnastics in implementing important aspects of their program. USA Gymnastics could definitely learn to treat their gymnasts with dignity and respect. As a former member of club gymnastics within program that’s a part of USA Gymnastics, I feel that they would benefit from becoming more competent and have integrity, something that they have lacked in the past.
Nathanson, H. (2019, October 14). Simone Biles Just Broke The World Championships Medals Record Because She's The G.O.A.T. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from https://www.elle.com/uk/life-and-culture/a29457297/simone-biles/
Kirby, J. (2018, May 16). The sex abuse scandal surrounding USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, explained. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from https://www.vox.com/identities/2018/1/19/16897722/sexual-abuse-usa-gymnastics-larry-nassar-explained
Connor, T. (2018, January 31). Gymnast Simone Biles: Larry Nassar 'took a part of me' with abuse. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/army-women-returning-larry-nassar-s-second-sentencing-n842766
Today Show. (2019, March 28). Simone Biles: I slept 'all the time' to cope with sexual abuse. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from https://www.today.com/news/simone-biles-i-slept-all-time-cope-sexual-abuse-t151127
(Today Show, 2019)
Voepel, M. (2019, August 7). Biles: 'No manual' for healing from scars of abuse. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from https://www.espn.com/olympics/gymnastics/story/_/id/27342512/biles-no-manual-healing-scars-abuse
Lang, C. (2020, March 16). Simone Biles Calls Out USA Gymnastics for Birthday Message. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from https://time.com/5803852/simone-biles-usa-gymnastics-nassar/