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BURKE, Virginia — It’s dim in the Capital Gymnastics National Training Center and April Ballard is hovering over the metal bleachers, laying down her daughter’s edges with gel and a bristle brush.
She smooths Abigail’s hair into two puffs before sending her on her way for stretches and warm-ups on the red mats.
Abigail started gymnastics when she was 6. At the time, there weren’t many other Black girls around. Sometimes, April said, Abigail’s white teammates have looked at her puffs with amazement because they’re fascinated by her hair.
The 11-year-old is wonderstruck in a different sense when she watches Simone Biles compete and execute skills previously unperformed by no other female gymnast. Biles is just that good. And she’s Black. The sport’s most-decorated star means a lot to Abigail.
“It makes me want to accomplish what she has,” she told Yahoo Sports.
Abigail hopes to one day make the U.S. National Team and is already moving up the gymnastics ranks. She is the Level 8 All-Around Virginia State Champion for the 2020-2021 season and is currently training for Level 9, two notches below the elite level, where Olympic-caliber gymnasts compete.
April decided to put Abigail in gymnastics once she noticed how much her daughter was swinging on the bar in a closet where they lived at the time. She took Abigail to a free open gym one day and she’s been tumbling ever since. April’s younger daughter, Anna, 8, also tumbles.
Gymnastics wasn’t something April participated in growing up in D.C., though she was a cheerleader. The mom of two thinks people don’t realize just how many Black gymnasts are out there. Gabby Douglas was the only Black member on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in 2012. The number increased to two in 2016 when Douglas and Biles both made the squad.
With most of gymnastics’ exposure coming only around the Olympics, it’s easy to reach the conclusion that the sport isn’t something Black girls participate in on a wide scale.
“It’s not like we’re not around,” April told Yahoo Sports. “We’re there. It’s just the world doesn’t know the ins and outs of gymnastics.”
Though equity issues are prevalent and create a financial barrier for some Black families to sign their kids up for gymnastics — a gym representative says summer recreational classes at Capital Gymnastics are $180 plus a $35 registration fee for an eight-week session — Abigail and her teammates, much like Biles, are starting conversations about who participates and excels in the sport.
One teammate, McKenzie Clark, has participated in gymnastics since she was 18 months. The 13-year-old loves performing on floor or vault because both events take power and that’s her thing. Raquel Simmons, 13, enjoys floor exercise, too, because she likes to tumble.
Some events they don’t like as much.
“I’m not good with bars,” Clark told Yahoo Sports. “But I’m working on it.”
Competing against each other
Before gymnastics meets, Trinity Wood, 11, chooses her hairstyle and goes over routines in her head. She loves to have fun, and that’s why, like Clark and Simmons, floor exercise is her favorite event. Biles, who dazzles in the floor routine, inspires Wood.
“There used to be not that many Black gymnasts, and at some meets there aren’t,” Wood told Yahoo Sports, “but they are getting more Black gymnasts … so it just makes it better.”
Wood has Olympic dreams. Her mother, Tanisha Wood, is supportive of those aspirations — they drive an hour from their home in Maryland to the gym in Burke, Virginia. But she is fearful that her daughter could be overlooked at the elite level if society doesn’t get to a point where it's comfortable spotlighting more than just one Black gymnast.
With her gold-medal resume, Biles is the talk of the gymnastics world. But she is one of six Black women on the USA Gymnastics senior national team. All six of the Black women on the national team competed at the U.S. Gymnastics Olympic Trials in June. The 2021 UCLA gymnastics team, for example, which competed in the NCAA Gymnastics Championship, boasted four Black women. Other college teams have Black members, too.
“As far as with publicizing Black gymnasts, I feel like there’s a max right now,” Tanisha Wood told Yahoo Sports. “So if you highlight too many, then it’s too much.”
This dynamic isn’t something other racial groups have to think about as much, Tanisha Wood said, adding that, “We’re always competing against each other and we shouldn’t have to be.”
Dealing with pressure
Abigail tumbles and prances down the vault runway. She’s practicing her stick. Working on her form.
The gymnast hits one pose and her leg is slightly bent. April knows Abigail will be upset with herself. She has to be perfect. Fittingly, Abigail’s favorite event is the balance beam.
“It’s really elegant,” she said. “... It just feels natural. I don’t feel scared of the beam.”
Biles similarly chases perfection. That’s just a part of the sport which is judged by mere tenths of a point. But it seems deeper for her, to the extent it’s taken a toll on her psyche.
During the women’s gymnastics team final in Tokyo on Tuesday, Biles could not will her mind and body to cooperate. That might be why the gymnast watered down her Yurchenko vault and performed 1.5 twists in the air rather than the 2.5 she had planned. It might be why on that same vault, she landed in an awkward pose.
Biles, citing mental health concerns, chose to remove herself from the competition. She figured she’d do more harm than good for her teammates, who took silver in the team final, had she continued to compete. On Wednesday, the gymnast also withdrew herself from the individual all-around competition.
“It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head,” Biles told reporters after the Russia Olympic Committee took gold in the competition.
Nearly a month after Abigail’s practice at Capital Gymnastics in early July, she and April were up early Tuesday morning to watch the livestream of the women’s gymnastics team final.
When Abigail saw Biles stumble, she knew something was off.
“I kind of freaked out,” she said Tuesday evening. “... She’s never done that before.”
Tuesday wasn’t the first time Biles hasn’t quite looked like herself. At the Olympic Trials in June, Biles had a less-than-flawless performance on Day 2 of the meet. First, she fell off the beam after making a not-so earth-shattering mistake.
Biles was still in control of the competition after the fall. She was still all but guaranteed a spot in Tokyo — she’d win the meet with a score over two points ahead of runner-up Suni Lee — yet she fought back tears as coaches consoled her.
“No one is tougher on Simone than Simone,” one NBC commentator said during the broadcast.
Then, Biles hopped on the landing of her first of two vaults for the night. She shook her head, seemingly haunted by the slide back. A similar look of dissatisfaction painted her face after she landed her second vault, an Amanar. She’d had enough after a break in form on the uneven bars.
“I want to die,” a mic’d up Biles told her teammates as she walked away from the bars. It was as if, even then at Trials in June, the writing was on the wall for her exit from the team and all-around competitions at the Olympics. She told reporters Tuesday it’s been a rough few weeks, a rough year.
Abigail has experienced her share of bad meets, too. At one competition this past year, April recalled, Abigail fell on every event except for the floor routine. She said she used to cry when she made mistakes in competition, but controls her emotions better now that she’s older.
The mom loves that Biles has dominated the sport and achieved what no one else has. But, prior to the Games, she worried that the visible pressure Biles put on herself, no doubt spurred by media coverage and other external factors, indirectly sent a message to young gymnasts that they can’t mess up, lest their lives be metaphorically over.
April understands what has been Biles' almost psychological need to be perfect, though. Abigail is just 11, yet she admits to thinking about gymnastics 24/7. Biles, meanwhile, is not just an elite gymnast, but an elite Black female gymnast who has had a gold-colored weight on her shoulders and a GOAT legacy to enhance and protect. That comes with all sorts of baggage and scrutiny.
“Once you start engaging in the public and what they’re saying about you, it just ruins you,” April said. “And [there’s] almost no way around it.”
In many instances, Black athletes have no choice but to be great just to have a spot or be accepted in society. Jackie Robinson had to be great. Black NFL quarterbacks have to be great. Biles must be great, too.
She is also — whether she decided to be or not — a representative of the Black community, which can sometimes be another source of criticism. Much of the controversy over Douglas’ hair at the 2012 games, for example, came from Black women who felt her locks were unkempt.
Prior to the Tokyo Games, critics even found fault with Biles’ proximity to perfection. She has performed what are thought to be impossible skills, like the Yurchenko double pike vault which had never been attempted by a woman in competition until Biles did so in May at the U.S. Classic.
The gymnast has suggested that judges have undervalued her routines because they didn’t know how to score her novel skills and didn’t want to be unfair to other competitors who will likely never execute what Biles has. It’s as if Biles has been punished for her excellence.
“… They don’t want the field to be too far apart,” Biles told The New York Times in May. “And that’s just something that’s on them. That’s not on me.”
Simone's lasting impact
Though Biles is undeniably human and in need of mental and physical rest just like everyone else, her dominance in gymnastics has bred power.
Along with Douglas, and before that, Dominique Dawes, she has opened the door for Black gymnasts, including Chiles, her Olympic teammate. She is in the clutches of perfectionism, but April said Biles is free in other ways. She wears makeup as she competes. She withdrew from the competition Tuesday, emphasizing the importance of mental health. She is not invincible, but she is challenging notions that the window for elite gymnasts closes after they surpass 16.
“I’m 21. I feel like I’m reaching the end of my gymnastics years,” Cammy Hall, a Capital Gymnastics alumna and Black gymnast for the University of Utah, told Yahoo Sports. “But she’s 24 and she’s still pushing it, so that gives me some juice to finish off strong.”
No one was able to tell Biles she was too old. No one could tell her, in a sport as strict as gymnastics, not to laugh at the chalk station. Because she has been that good. In fact, that became Biles’ unofficial motto: "Because I can."
And that’s what April wants Abigail to focus on — not on her race or what people are telling her she can’t be, but the power she can have because of her abilities.
She tells Abigail to be proud of who God made her to be. That she can be so great that gymnastics needs her just like it needs Biles and just like the NBA needs LeBron James. It’s why, ahead of each meet, Abigail meditates on Philippians 4:13, her favorite Bible verse: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
The mental and spiritual component is everything to the mom. Biles said she has demons. April said Abigail deals with the same things, and so do many other gymnasts. She’s thankful Biles opened up about her struggles.
Biles didn’t defend her Olympic title in the individual all-around competition, but the mother and daughter said they’re still proud of the champ because of what she’s done for so many young girls and women.
“Everything she’s doing is setting a new tone,” April said Tuesday. In her opinion, Biles has nothing more to prove.
She’s got the medals. She’s got the accolades. She’s got skills named after her. This Olympic run wasn’t for her — she emphasized that in her exit from the team competition Tuesday and then from the all-around competition the following day.
Biles is for her teammates, for the culture. For young gymnasts like Abigail.
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