There was a moment in the U.S. Olympic gymnastic team's interview with "Today" anchor Hoda Kotb that seared straight into my heart.
Right after Simone Biles' teammates won the silver medal -- stepping up when she had to step out -- Biles said, "I hope America still loves us."
America, we have failed if one of our greatest athletes has to ask this.
The desire to be loved and accepted is an intrinsic human need beyond any athletic competition. Children and adolescents will experience the pressure to succeed, to perform well in all things, even if they don't participate in elite athletics.
I realized how this internalized pressure affects kids' mental health when my daughter started high school. I started telling my children that I love them for who they are, not what they accomplish. I keep reminding them of this as they set even higher expectations for themselves.
Biles is more than how high she leaps, how many times she flips and twists and how effortless she makes the most difficult feats look. She is a role model for claiming her agency and getting her priorities right in the most clutch moment. She made the decision I hope my children would be brave enough to make if their own life circumstances pitted their well-being against their goals and dreams.
Biles started to show signs of trouble during the qualifying trials in St. Louis. A stumble on the vault landing, a fall from the balance beam -- suddenly the sportscasters who had assured us that the four-time gold medalist was virtually guaranteed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics were reminding us that she is, in fact, human. Even though she performs superhuman feats, even though she is the greatest in her field, even though she handles indescribable pressure and expectations with a wide and confident smile, Simone Biles is human.
We were reminded of this again in Tokyo during the qualifying trials. Biles faltered in her gravity-defying floor routine. The uncharacteristic setbacks culminated in the vault that changed everything, during which Biles says she lost track of where she was midair. That's terrifying. She withdrew from the team finals and the all-around finals to save herself from making a mistake that could have caused catastrophic injury or even death.
I was devastated when I first heard that she wouldn't be able to compete. I wasn't upset for those of us who thrill in cheering her on, but for her -- the sacrifices, the dedication, the trauma she has endured to rise to this level. It felt like she was being robbed of an opportunity she had fought her entire life for. For an athlete who has competed through pain few of us can fathom, this had to have been an excruciating decision.
But this choice was also an opportunity.
Biles cemented her legacy beyond her athletic greatness at these Games. When we talk about Simone Biles, what we are really talking about is a Black woman champion who set her own boundaries. We are talking about recognizing a person's humanity and agency. When we talk about Biles, our children hear us. They absorb the messages we are broadcasting through our approval, disapproval, disappointment or empathy. The bloated bloviators who criticize her decision have mastered one trick: seeking attention by attacking those who make them feel small.
An athlete of her caliber has nothing to prove about toughness or grit. She has shown the heart of a champion in countless competitions. But in this moment, she showed us what it looks like to take care of yourself, even when the world's expectations are on your shoulders.
And for that, America loves you even more, Simone.