Tag Archives: women’s gymnastics

Simone Biles: One of the World’s Greatest Athletes


Debbie says:

Simone Biles has been taking the gymnastics world by storm since 2013. As part of the legendary gold-winning “Final Five” in the 2016 summer games, she also won three individual gold medals there (all-around, vault, and floor exercise) and a bronze in the balance beam. These weren’t her first medals and victories, and they weren’t her last ones.

Last week, she nailed a triple-double in her floor exercise (the first woman to do so), and she also scored a double-double dismount from the balance beam (the first human to do so). The incredible slow-motion video above (from R.P.A. TV), shows her artistry and her control. I knew those terms better from skating than from gymnastics. Here’s what they mean.

In a double-double dismount, the athlete completes a double twist and double somersault in one move coming off the beam. In a floor triple-double, the gymnast rotates around the axis of her hips twice while at the same time rotating about an axis of her height three times. If you care (I kind of do), Rhett Allain at Wired sorts out the physics of the triple-double. I’ll spare you the equations, which you can find at the link.

Once a human leaves the floor, there is essentially only one force acting on him or her—the gravitational force. This is a downward-pulling force that depends on the local gravitational field (g = 9.8 Newtons per kilogram) and the mass of the human (or whatever object). This constant downward force causes a person to accelerate downward. But because both the force and the acceleration depend on mass, the mass cancels out. All free-falling objects on the surface of the Earth have the same acceleration of -9.8 m/s2.

The other great thing about the gravitational force is that it only acts in the vertical direction. This means that there are no net forces in the horizontal direction. With no net force, there is no CHANGE in velocity. Once she’s in the air, Simone’s center of mass will move along with a constant speed—with the same horizontal velocity at which she was running before the jump.

But in the vertical direction, she launches upward with some vertical velocity. This velocity decreases as she travels up until it reaches zero at the highest point of the jump. At that point, she starts moving down and increasing in speed until she returns to the floor.

Of course, no athlete is thinking about gravitational forces or equations while contorting her body through the air; that all happens in the training and the body knowledge.

Biles is 22, which while it may sound young to many readers, is quite old for a female gymnast. And she’s clearly at the top of her game. It’s time to stop just acknowledging that she’s the world’s greatest gymnast: she’s one of the world’s greatest athletes. What will she do in 2020?



No Surprise: American Women’s Gymnastics’ Racist History


Debbie says:

simone biles

I don’t usually watch much of the Olympics, but last night at the home of friends I did see Simone Biles’ amazing vaulting performance.  So I was especially interested this morning in Lindsay Gibbs’ piece at ThinkProgress:  “America’s Painful Journey From Prejudice To Greatness In Women’s Gymnastics.”

We pretty much have to assume that every place where African-American people succeed has a history of struggle and exclusion. Gibbs lays out exactly how women’s gymnastics fits this narrative:

Here’s Zerrell  (correct spelling may be Zerell) Johnson Welch, a coach of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in Rio (text from the video):

“I was probably the only black girl, African American, in my class,” she told ThinkProgress. “It was very daunting… stressful, frustrating, isolating, and hurtful at times.”

Welch stuck with the sport, but was constantly bombarded with reminders that she was different, particularly by coaches who were unfamiliar with hair and body types that didn’t fall within the narrow confines of typical gymnasts.

“I remember [a male coach] making a comment about my rump, my bump, my butt,” she said. “I didn’t really become self-conscious of that until he actually brought it to my attention. And it was done in a joking way but it wasn’t a joking way to me at all. Not at all.”

Welch is amazingly hard to research on the Internet, regardless of how you spell or hyphenate her name. (She didn’t compete because by the time she was 17, her family simply couldn’t afford to keep her coaching going.) Gibbs implies that Welch is the coach of the whole Olympic women’s gymnastics team, so features about her should be everywhere. Her obscurity is hard to explain by any argument other than simple racism.

Her message, however, is deeply familiar. Laurie and I have been saying this since we started working together:

“The idea of seeing someone that looks like you is so profound, and it has such an impact on your understanding of what you potentially can be,” she said.

Gibbs’ article goes on to

  • tell some of Gabby Douglas’ (defending all-around womens’ gymnastics champion) stories of racism she has encountered,
  • interview Alexandria Brown, mother of two gymnasts of color
  • interrogate the division between “grace and beauty” (European standards) and “power” (more commonly associated with athletes of color)
  • dissect the incomprehensible cost of raising a competitive gymnast

Forbes estimates the average cost of raising an Olympic-level gymnast is about $15,000 per year. Multiply that by the five to eight years of training, and parents can find themselves shelling out around $120,000.

  • profile the Wendy Hilliard Foundation, started by an African-American former gymnast to bring gymnastics to American communities of color
  • and return to Welch for the other side of the “people who look like me” coin:

“It is just as important for those who do not look like you to be exposed to you.”

That is a point Laurie and I make less often, and I’m grateful to Welch for making it so clearly. It is incredibly important in whatever you do to see people who don’t look like you. And at the same time, those of us who may look like those who have gone before us in any arena, then really really need to understand, in our bones and our guts, that we don’t represent the only way people should look.

When Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas show their stuff in Rio, I’ll be appreciating them not just for who they are, but for the battles they — and the women who went before them — have fought to make it possible for them to get the acclaim they deserve.