Amid depressing news these days like abortion bans, mass shootings, and rampant Hollywood sexual assault cases, it can be easy to overlook an event so uplifting that it almost sounds like science fiction. Just a few days ago gymnast Simone Biles, who already defied all laws of gravity when she became the most decorated female athlete at the 2016 Rio Olympics (tying with US swimmer Katie Ledecky), nailed the riskiest balance beam dismount in the sport’s history at the US national championships: a double-double, or a double somersault with a full twist in each flip. And if that wasn’t badass enough, the next day she nailed the triple double on the floor exercise, which is a double back somersault with three twists.
Then, like the multidimensional supernova she is, Biles posted a pic of herself on Instagram donning a hilariously huge Kool-Aid smile following her record-breaking achievement with the caption: “That feeling when you make history… twice.” That candid image of victory managed to transform our collective mood, even if just for a moment, from overwhelmingly dour to gleeful because it is the face of a happy young black woman who had just served notice to her her predominantly white competitors across the world in a sport that has yet to truly embrace the brilliance of women of color. That’s what you call defiant joy.
It’s a state of mind that Biles has had to learn to master in a global forum that has been none too kind to brown-skinned female athletes like her and teammate Gabrielle Douglas, who’ve been criticized for everything from their muscular bodies to their hair. Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito, who Biles edged out for a medal on the balance beam at the 2013 world championships, has since apologized for flippantly saying, “Next time we’ll have our skin black also, so we can win too.”
Let’s be really clear about what’s happening here. Biles, like her predecessor Dominique Dawes who became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics in 1994, isn’t racking up medals because of her skin color, or because black women are presumably having a pop culture moment, or because of affirmative action or any other agenda that hinges on political correctness. She is winning because she is tremendously talented. I know that’s a difficult realization for some to hear (Ferlito, I’m looking at you and your peers), but black women are and have always been—like pop star Rihanna once said—on a whole other level.
And Biles has been basking in that. Like tennis icon Serena Williams, she’s a woman who’s come to celebrate her “stockier” physique after body shamers tried to make her feel bad about it. In 2016, just weeks before she swept the Olympics, the gymnast told Teen Vogue, “I was built this way for a reason, so I’m going to use it.” That appreciation for herself and haters-be-damned approach to her work has helped clench a new generation of gymnastics enthusiasts glued to their television screens, enraptured with every contortion, flip, and awe-inspiring move she makes. She is, despite the prevailing whiteness of the sport, its main attraction—regardless of whether or not the powers that be care to admit it.
But beyond being a phenomenon on the international stage , Biles has also proven to be a force to be reckoned with off the mat. In 2018, she bravely came forward about disgraced former USA gymnastics physician Larry Nassar sexually assaulting her, resonating with other black #MeToo survivors whose stories have too often been dismissed. Even despite this deeply traumatic event, Biles continued to flash that mega-watt smile, defeat the competition, and nurture an envious personal life that includes her relationship with boyfriend Stacey Ervin, Jr, director and head coach at the World Champions Centre, whose pics on social media are the epitome of #couplegoals.
Her positivity has garnered countless speaking engagements, fashion ads where she’s flaunting her covetable curves in haute couture, over 3 million social media followers (and steadily climbing), who cling to her every post for a daily dose of encouragement.
Biles is, after all, a woman who has had to overcome more seemingly insurmountable challenges that anyone of any age or race should have to encounter, especially in front of a live international audience. But even more impressive than that, she’s managed to give us all something to smile about in this world where hate and intolerance often dominate our regular conversations. She’s given us hope.
Candice Frederick is a freelance critic living in New York City
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