The Journal Gazette
Friday, July 30, 2021 1:00 am

Toughness of gymnasts unparalleled

BLAKE SEBRING | For The Journal Gazette

As someone who covered high school gymnastics for a very long time, I can't believe “fans” are questioning Simone Biles' toughness or courage.

Doing anything in gymnastics takes bravery: to throw your body 20 feet in the air and hope you land correctly or grab that bar with the correct grip and timing.

I have yet to see a football player or wrestler attempt a flip on a balance beam, 4 feet off the ground and 4 inches wide.

Gymnasts appear dainty, graceful and the best ones sometimes even elegant. They also might be the toughest athletes in their school.

It always amazed me how the athletes wearing the least padding always took the biggest risks, knowing they were challenging fate and their bodies' limits facing potentially catastrophic injuries.

Try doing that when you're not at your best mentally on the world's largest stage. That's what Biles was facing when she decided to drop out of the Olympics.

Think that decision didn't take courage?

Because they are the smallest competitors who wear the least protection and take the most chances, they also might be the toughest athletes. They don't have pads or braces or helmets. They are at risk during every routine, and they know intimately their careers could end with one slip because of an injury they can't come back from.

I've never met a gymnast who was completely healthy. Constant bruises, sore knees, stress fractures in their back or feet, shin splints, and wrist and shoulder problems are common. They are all continuously bruised, and the most experienced ones wear the most athletic tape. Seniors start the year wearing tape on their ankles and keep adding as the schedule passes.

It's just the cost of throwing your body around with twists and flips, trying to maintain balance and absorbing the impact of landings.

Rachel Anderson from Heritage went through her entire junior season in 2014 dealing with a broken vertebrae wing. Then she slipped during her bars warm-ups at the season-opening Concordia Becky Carter Classic the next season, landing awkwardly. Everyone in the crowd winced with her and immediately thought, “Oh, no, not again!”

“My back feels better,” Anderson said after getting back up and knowing she would still perform. “It still has a bump. It still bothers me when I do my stuff, but it's not real pain like last year.”

Right, “real” pain.

But Anderson persevered and won the regional all-around title that year.

The entire sport is about dealing with pain and conquering fear. Because the routines require more difficulty and higher risks to score more points, the pain never goes away, either. It just compounds.

Another example: By the end of the high school season, most gymnasts have palms and fingers that are cracked and ripped up from performing their bars routines. Because it's the shortest high school season at about two months, they can't afford to miss any meets to heal.

Their careers are too finite to miss anything. Most gymnastics coaching careers start at age 18 because there isn't any other option to stay involved with the sport these athletes love.

One of the great things about gymnastics is that every competitor feels empathy for opponents. For one thing, there's no defense, so everyone encourages each other because they all know what each has sacrificed to compete on this level. They all know the pain they've gone through and could face on any new attempt if something goes wrong. They understand they are trying to do great things and there might be a higher cost if something goes wrong.

That's one reason Biles has so much respect and support from her peers who have all backed her completely.

So, question Biles' heart or courage? She displayed more of both the past two days than most will ever in a lifetime.

If anything, the gymnasts achieve so much and do it so gracefully they make the rest of us think it's easy. Nothing in gymnastics is ever easy, and it's always about conquering fear.

Blake Sebring is a long-time local journalist and author. His latest book “Fort Wayne Stories” is available on Amazon.

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