A Broad and Generous Definition of Heroism: Celebrating Kerri Strug’s “Yes”— and Simone Biles’ “No.”
Twenty-five years ago last Friday, the Olympic women’s team gymnastics final came down to the United States and Russia. With the two historic rivals neck-and-neck, the teams moved to their final rotations: the Russians on floor, the USA on vault.
On her first vault, 18-year-old Kerri Strug landed badly. As Sports Illustrated told it in 1997:
She remembers nothing of what transpired in the air on her first vault, only the ominous sound and pain of her too-short landing. Her left ankle gave way. "There was such momentum," she says, "the bone was shoved forward and then back in place," tearing the medial and lateral ligaments.
The gold medal hung in the balance. Kerri knew she was hurt, and badly. She had one question for her coach: Do we need this? She asked the legendary Bela Karolyi. Does the team need me to vault again? As ESPN recounted, Karolyi gave his answer: Kerri, we need you to go one more time. We need you one more time for the gold.
If you’re over 30, you remember exactly what happened next. Kerri vaults again, and sticks the landing on her terribly torn ankle. She hears another crack as she lands. Kerri smiles, salutes the judges, and collapses to the mat in agony. Karolyi races to her side, and scoops her up in his arms. The United States has won its first-ever team gold in gymnastics – and the Atlanta Games has its defining moment.
Years later, when other gymnasts came forward with complaints about the methods deployed by Bela Karolyi and his wife, Strug defended her former coaches, telling the Houston Chronicle in 2008:
Maybe it can be done another way, but the Karolyis produce one champion after another after another. And, to get there, it will take things that aren’t necessarily pleasant. If it had it to do over, I would do the same thing.
Almost from the moment that Simone Biles suddenly pulled out of the women’s gymnastics team final on Tuesday night, folks on Twitter were making disparaging comparisons between her withdrawal and Strug’s determination to take that second, fateful vault exactly a quarter of a century ago. That Strug’s heroism sealed that first gold medal for team USA is the stuff of legend; time will tell how much blame, if any, Biles will carry for the American’s failure to win the title in Tokyo.
The outpouring of social media love these past few hours for the extraordinarily talented Simone Biles – the most decorated gymnast of all time – suggests that the American public (at least the heavily-online portion) is immensely supportive of her decision.
It’s not my place to question Simone’s decision to withdraw. Given the sad, infuriating legacy of neglect and abuse in American gymnastics (the disgraced Larry Nassar treated Kerri’s ankle after her vault), no one in 2021 should begrudge a gymnast’s decision to act in her own best interests. An athlete whose head is not in the game can risk serious injury, especially on events like the vault or the beam.
It’s too much to expect anyone to take that risk, even with the most prestigious prize in the sport – and a nation’s hopes -- hanging in the balance. Too much to expect, yes, and to the modern mind, obscene even to ask. To even express disappointment that Team USA took silver, behind the Russians (the same team we bested in ’96) is to evince woefully troglodytic priorities. What does the color of a medal matter compared to someone’s emotional and physical health?
What Biles has done is take a starring role in the ongoing reframing of what it means to be heroic: 25 years ago, heroism meant putting country and team ahead of one’s own health. In 2021, heroism is the willingness to insist on one’s personal well-being over all else. The outpouring of love and support for Biles suggests that she did more good by withdrawing than by competing; like Naomi Osaka’s decision to pull out of the French Open rather than do press conferences, Biles has become a symbol of the sacred right to set boundaries. We may well end up remembering her withdrawal more than the gold she might otherwise have won – and depending on your view, draw more salubrious or dangerous lessons from her pullout than we would have from her participation.
The more attention we can bring to mental health, the better. To that extent, I am grateful for the discussion.
I wonder if time won’t show a stark generational divide to Biles’ decision. I certainly won’t question what an athlete does for herself. I do worry, however, that Simone’s withdrawal will begin to be seen as somehow worthier of celebration than Kerri’s gritty refusal to quit. I worry that those who did gut it out, who played through pain and psychological torment, will have their achievements lessened by being pathologized or pitied rather than celebrated.
In 2008, Kerri’s refusal to denounce her coaches was seen as laudable; will we now see her as brainwashed? Will her (literally) staggering bravery now become a cautionary tale rather than the stuff of legend? For those of us raised with the idea that there was something virtuous and character-building about persevering through pain, what are we to do with our memories? Shake our heads and say, “It sucked to be us, frankly, thank God the kids these days are healthier?” What if we really did gain strength and resilience as a result of putting team first, or country first, or company first? Was that all fraudulent, foolish, tragic and unnecessary? To many pundits today, the answer is “yes” on all counts.
I’ve read many accounts of Kerri’s experience today, all reframing her as a victim. In the modern retelling, she has been stripped of her agency – and of the meaning of her triumph itself. A friend, writing on Facebook about the Kerri-Simone comparison, noted that where she cheered with pride in 1996, she can’t watch that famous vault anymore without feeling sick to her stomach. She showed the Strug video to her daughters this afternoon as a warning of the dangers of putting anything ahead of their health. Never mind that in every interview she’s given, Kerri has insisted she would do it all again if she could; if she can’t bring herself to be angry all these years later, her enduring pride in her decision is evidence of a sad delusion. We can feel sorry for her, but we should stop celebrating her as a role model.
Simone Biles has nothing to prove to the world or her country. I want to make it absolutely clear: I will not second-guess her decision. She is a grown woman who has accomplished exceptional things. She has demonstrated a lifetime of grit. She made a choice today, and we don’t second-guess someone’s choices.
I told my kids today about Simone Biles, and yes, I showed them the Kerri Strug video as well. I didn’t call either woman a hero, or a victim. We came to the conclusion that each woman made a choice, and there are both benefits and consequences to each choice. I told the kids that based on everything she’s said, Strug is still happy she did what she did, all these years later; my kids and I agreed that Biles will almost certainly be equally satisfied with today’s decision years and years from now.
Perhaps my generation overemphasized pluck, perseverance, and self-sacrifice for a cause. Perhaps we took too many risks for pleasure or glory. Perhaps today’s kids are wiser and better-adjusted – or, perhaps, they have merely shifted to overemphasizing personal well-being at the expense of all other commitments. Time will tell.
What it means to be a hero is always changing. What we thought of as natural and timeless in our childhood was, in fact, a temporary permutation in an endlessly shifting narrative. Those of us who see gutting it out in agony as more heroic than self-care may sneer at the “snowflakes” of the contemporary age; the young may reframe an older generation’s pain-enduring courage as foolishness -- or tragic evidence of victimhood. Neither bothers to understand the virtues inherent in the other’s choices.
We would, I think, be smart to take the long view. Aging traditionalists do well not to lament the innovations of the young; the young, impetuous for transformation, do well to rethink their reflexive dismissal of their elders’ virtues. There is plenty of truth to go around.
As I told my children, Kerri Strug will always be a hero. Simone Biles is a hero as well. Twenty-five years apart, in very similar situations of incredible pressure, two young women made two opposite– but equally valid and risky – choices. Each paid a price they were willing to pay. We can be, must be, generous enough to celebrate both.
I watched Kerri Strug’s heroics in a tiny apartment in East Pasadena; I was three weeks out of the hospital when she landed that vault. I was living with my new girlfriend, a month out of my second marriage. I was very shaky. It seems like just yesterday.
The song I remember best from that summer of 1996 was this one, from the Wallflowers. Bob Dylan’s son. Perhaps it will take you back, too.