Simone Biles wins the Presidential Medal of Freedom — Other gym news — Thoughts from Gabi Rooker

Biles becomes the youngest athlete to ever receive the honor, a chat with former gymnast and current marathoner Gabi Rooker and more

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Simone Biles Thursday became the first gymnast to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Thursday.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom, per the White House, is “the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors.” 

Biles is the youngest athlete to receive the award, though not the youngest recipient overall. (Thanks to Mike Davis of The Medal Count for that research.) 

The award recognizes not only Biles’ athletic achievement but her advocacy for foster children, sexual abuse victims, and mental health resources for athletes. 

In gymnastics, a sport that has historically quashed athletes’ independent voices, this is a massive breakthrough for one who kept speaking out. Biles has always been different this way. If you listen to interviews with gymnasts on broadcasts from the last, let’s say, 30 years, aka the Karolyi years, they all have a specific kind of monotone dead voice and a limited set of canned responses to questions that likely got media-trained into them. I noticed it most especially with Aly Raisman when she gave interviews during her career, probably because Raisman became so eloquently outspoken after her retirement from the sport. But it’s evident in almost all of them, from Shannon Miller to Dominique Moceanu to Carly Patterson to Nastia Liukin to Gabby Douglas to Raisman, and many in between.

Biles, though, has always had more life in her voice than her compatriots. (No shade to them, of course; we know what they were going through.) In 2015, she told reporters that she thought the American team sent to that year’s world championships in Glasgow, Scotland, was exhausted and needed “a mental break.” They got a 20-minute shopping excursion as a result. The team won gold and Biles clinched her third consecutive world title in Glasgow en route to her huge medal haul at the Rio Olympics the following year.

It was in the lead-up to Rio that Biles began openly advocating for children in the foster system through collaboration with Mattress Firm. Many profiles of Biles had touched on her own time as a foster child, but here she was, an athlete about to compete on her sport’s biggest stage openly discussing what sounded like a painful part of her past.

And during the competition in Rio, we saw the end of veteran NBC commentator Al Trautwig’s gymnastics-reporting career when he said on-air and reinforced on Twitter that Biles’s parents were really her grandparents who had adopted her from foster care, forcing a commentary on her past that we didn’t really need since Biles had already addressed it head-on. Trautwig apologized, but the damage was done. Biles herself did not comment at the time, but her then-coach, Aimee Boorman, did, and other gymnastics media were horrified. It was clear that Biles’ own advocacy gave her the upper hand on the matter.

Then came the Larry Nassar scandal. Biles was not the first Olympian to acknowledge that she had been abused by Nassar, nor the last. But it was her 2018 tweet, just before Nassar’s sentencing hearing in Michigan, that, I think, made people realize the breadth and depth of his crimes. 

That same tweet ts is singlehandedly credited with shutting down the Karolyi ranch, where so many faced unspeakable abuse. She called it out, and USAG had no choice but to hear her. Today, the national team camps are held at a more neutral site.

Another tweet from Biles criticized USAG’s hire of Mary Bono as its CEO after Bono had tweeted out a photo of herself blacking out a Nike logo on her shoes after the company featured Colin Kaepernick in an ad campaign. After the Nike-sponsored Biles spoke out, saying the sport needed a “smarter” leader, Bono deleted her tweet. That was on a Friday. Bono resigned on Tuesday.

Biles has continued to speak out since, in every medium from testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee to her Facebook series Simone vs. Herself, about the trauma she has endured due to the abuse. She is one of more than 90 plaintiffs in a $1 billion lawsuit against the FBI for fumbling its role in the Nassar investigation. 

At the Tokyo Olympics last summer, Biles withdrew from the team final, saying she had to protect her mental health. She later withdrew from the all-around final, the vault final, and the floor final. She elaborated later, referring to a case of the “twisties,” for gymnasts a dangerous mental block against certain skills that affects them physically as well because they lose air awareness and are no longer in control of their landings. Biles said the enduring effects of Nassar’s abuse while still being expected to carry the U.S. team to gold played a role in her deteriorating mental health during the competition. Again, she has not stopped talking about mental health, her own and the importance for others of paying attention to it, and significantly impacted the discussion of mental health as it pertains to athletes over the last year. 

There is so much more to say about how Biles has taken the stereotype of the malnourished teen robot gymnast and flipped it around twice with three twists (a Biles II, of course). She’s 25 years old, engaged to a pro football player who openly supports her advocacy. She takes time off from gymnastics, posts vacation selfies, then comes back and wins world championship gold again and again, occasionally with a kidney stone. She might be done with the sport now, but she’s still in the USADA drug-testing pool, so maybe she’s not. We’ll find out in Paris in 2024, and we’re fine with that. 

President Joe Biden said about this year’s recipients, including Biles, “They have overcome significant obstacles to achieve impressive accomplishments in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us, and acted with bravery to drive change in their communities – and across the world – while blazing trails for generations to come.”

Kudos to the loudest, bravest trailblazer in gymnastics on this honor. 

You can watch Biles receive the medal here, starting at the 41:54 mark.

Other gym news

USAG announced its teams for the Pan Am Championships. The senior team will be Kayla DiCello, Skye Blakely, Zoe Miller, Elle Mueller, and Lexi Zeiss. Addison Fatta is the alternate. The junior team will be Tiana Sumanasekera, Zoey Molomo, Alicia Zhou, and Dulcy Caylor. Audrey Snyder is the alternate.

The senior and junior teams for the Pan Am Championships. Courtesy USA Gymnastics.

Also unveiled by USAG: Fields for both the American Classic and Hopes Classic, which will be held this weekend in Salt Lake City. 

Nominative rosters for Euros were released.

Jordan Chiles posted a video of herself tumbling at World Champions Centre.

Corrinne Wright Tarver, who will lead the new gymnastics team at Fisk University, was promoted to athletic director. She will serve in both roles simultaneously.

Carly Dockendorf was promoted at Utah from assistant coach to associate head coach. 

Florida Gator stalwart Megan Skaggs will become the team’s new assistant to the head coach, Jenny Rowland.

Cammy Hall, formerly at Utah, will take her fifth year at LSU.

Five at The IX: Gabi Rooker

Yes, that’s a runner up there. No, you didn’t come to the wrong place for a gymnastics interview. Because before she qualified for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials in the marathon last weekend — and as a runner and marathoner myself, let me tell you, that is HUGE — Gabi Rooker was a DIII gymnast for the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. Rooker trained at Roseville Gymnastics in Roseville, Minn., and Twin City Twisters in Champlin, Minn.

She competed in Level 10 for three years, though she was often hampered by injury. Rooker took off her senior year of high school, casually ran track instead (foreshadowing!), then committed to a college gymnastics career.

She now lives in Minneapolis and works as a physician’s assistant. And on June 17 at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., Rooker ran 26.2 miles in 2 hours, 34 minutes and 57 seconds, a personal best time by a whopping 20 minutes in a sport where records usually happen by hundredths of seconds, securing herself a spot at the trials. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk to someone with experience in BOTH my favorite sports, so I reached out to Rooker on Instagram to find out just how one goes from anaerobic sports to aerobic ones. This interview has been edited for clarity.

You were a top-level competitive gymnast who has become a top-level competitive marathoner. I don’t see much crossover between my favorite sports! Can you talk a little about how gymnastics prepared you for running, and also how it didn’t?

GR: I agree, the transition from gymnastics to marathons is quite non-traditional. My connection to running goes back even further than my time as a gymnast. My mom was a consistent runner throughout her entire pregnancy with me. She use to joke that I was “doing flips before I was born” because I would kick around like crazy after her runs. Looking back, maybe I was starting to train as a runner as well as a gymnast even then ;).

Like many gymnasts, I was an “on the go” kid my entire childhood. If I wasn’t in the gym, I was playing games in the neighborhood, swimming at friends’ pools, making up dance routines, and playing on the trampoline. I loved to compete in all capacities, and winning running races was particularly fun for me. I knew I was a fast kid, but I didn’t learn my love for running until after college when I was trying to find new ways to stay active and fit. The transition from local running to competitive marathoner was a few years. My goals adjusted as I found some success and a lot of enjoyment in the sport. Over the past few years, I have been able to steadily increase my mileage and speed. The determination, self-discipline, and love for competition are lessons I learned through gymnastics that have helped me find success with running. 

What was your favorite part of being a competitive gymnast? 

GR: My favorite part of gymnastics were the meets in college. I think most athletes find a new love for the sport when they transition from club to college gymnastics. The focus on the team success, atmosphere of the meets, and fun during competition are so special.

My college coach, Barbara Gibson, was phenomenal. She made sure each team member was equally valued and represented on the team. She focused on helping us develop into strong, confident young adults while fostering a tight-knit family feeling to the team. She always made sure we brought those qualities to life in practice, at meets, and in our personal lives.

What is your favorite gymnastics skill, and favorite apparatus? 

GR: My favorite skill to perform was my vault, a front handspring double full. My favorite skill to watch is still McKayla Maroney’s Yurchenko 2.5.

You just qualified for the Olympic Trials! What was that moment like, when you realized you qualified?

GR: I started to feel both physical pain as well as excitement that I was on pace to hit the qualifying time at mile 18. I focused on staying on pace if not slightly speeding up. My race team, Mill City Running, was cheering and going crazy at mile 24, which was the boost I needed as I really started to get tired. I knew I needed to put my head down and finish the last 2.2 miles. The last 400 meters of the race are wild. There are people cheering, music is playing, and the announcers are calling out names with finish times. I felt pure joy as I finished the last 150-200 meters and crossed the finish line.

What is your favorite Olympic moment, in any sport?

GR: My favorite gymnastics Olympic memory is watching the 1996 women’s gymnastics team win gold in Atlanta.

My favorite running Olympic memory is watching Molly Seidel win the bronze medal in the marathon at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

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