| Chris Maza
In my younger days, I was the coach of a high school swim team in Western Massachusetts.
We were a small team made up of a wide range of skill groups. We weren’t competing for championships. Heck, half the time, we weren’t even realistically able to win regular season meets because the math didn’t add up with the size of some schools versus ours. None of that stopped me from pushing the kids to compete, or most of them from pushing themselves. Swimming is one of those sports with a significant individual component while also being a team sport,
In one particular meet, I asked one of our veteran swimmers and team leaders to go outside of her comfort zone. Without getting into the weeds of the dynamics of the sport, I scheduled her to swim two of the most grueling events in Massachusetts High School swimming and after the second of those, a spot in a relay event immediately following. For that relay, the only time for recuperation was the boys relay event that preceded it. She had never done this before.
She didn’t protest when I posted the event sheet.
She had her usual strong performance in the first event. Her second event was also good, though not great by her high standards.
When she exited the water, she went over to a corner, sat down, and put her head between her legs. She was exhausted, but I admit that I recall being a little annoyed, thinking the exercise was a bit theatrical. As the boys relay event started, another swimmer said, “Coach?” and gestured to that corner. She was still on the floor, head between her knees, hands over the back of her head. I went over and asked her if she was alright. She said she was. I asked her if she needed me to take her out of the next event. She said she didn’t.
As the boys event ended, she got up, joined her relay team and completed the swim. Afterwards, she was upset. Her father was furious with me, though he never challenged me on it.
I never asked her to do that again.
I don’t remember where that relay team placed that day. I don’t remember if we won the meet. But I remember those moments.
As the discussion surrounding Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the Olympic gymnastics team competition – and later the individual competition – has continued and evolved, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about this moment in time more than a decade ago. And it makes me uncomfortable.
At the time, I applauded my swimmer’s effort and determination and I looked at it as if she was leading from the front. But now as I run through the events of that day in my head, I question pretty much everything about it.
Responding to Biles’ decision and subsequent criticism, former American Olympic gymnastics darling Dominique Moceanu made a social media post with a video in which she fell on her head during a balance beam routine. She said, “I was 14 [years old with] a tibial stress fracture, left alone w/ no cervical spine exam after this fall. I competed in the Olympic floor final minutes later. @Simone_Biles decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health – “a say” I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.”
With all of the debate about any athlete’s toughness, this post brought up this most important element – Biles had the opportunity to say, “No.” It’s not an insignificant thing to point out given the dark, abusive past of the USA Gymnastics organization and U.S. Olympic Committee that includes years of sexual exploitation at the hands of former team doctor Larry Nassar. Don’t forget Biles was one of the many who was sexually assaulted by Nassar. Others additionally suffered psychological abuse at the hands of longtime U.S. coach Bela Karolyi and his wife Marta, who also turned a blind eye to Nassar’s crimes. Some non-U.S. athletes who worked under the Karolyis have also accused physical violence. It wasn’t until 2016 that those two were no longer involved in USA Gymnastics.
So to say the very least, this was a big moment for USA Gymnastics and the sport, but also for the rest of us.
Thinking back to my own experiences, I liked to think that I was the kind of coach people could talk to. Kids talked to me about their families, their schoolwork, trying to balance everything going on in a teenager’s life – things like that. But was I the kind of coach my swimmers would have felt comfortable saying no to? I know what I hope the answer is, but I’m not so confident these days.
Thinking to the future, I want my daughter to recognize that she has not only the ability to step away, to say she’s not comfortable with something, but the support when she makes these decisions. Now, at 3 years old, she surely is learning the diversity of situations in which she wants to use the word “No,” but she doesn’t understand its power or significance. Part of my responsibility is to instill that understanding in her. Of course, in life, there are always things that we have to do or should do and the response when she says no isn’t always going to be the response she wants. But recognizing that she has a voice in those conversations and that voice has value is essential.
Understanding your value – not just the value that others place on you – is an aspect of life I think most of us can admit to struggling with. We don’t want to disappoint; we want to be a team player. Many of us have been taught to put others before ourselves. And there’s merit in that; it’s an important part of being part of a society, a workplace, a home. But equally important is recognizing there are situations in which your value isn’t always worth sacrificing and feeling you can advocate on your own behalf.
If we all take one thing out of the Simone Biles discussion, I hope it’s that.