Scrolling through my news feed this week, I saw a whole lot of grim headlines about COVID outbreaks, wildfires, and the federal eviction moratorium whose expiration, if not for a last-minute extension, would have been disastrous for already vulnerable tenants and deepened housing inequality. But there was a bright spot in the chaos for me: moments of solidarity and hope at the Olympics.
As an athlete heading into my junior year of high school, I’ve been watching the Olympics with a mix of relief and remorse: Simone Biles, undeniably gymnastics’ GOAT, pulled out of the finals and her teammate Jordan Chiles stepped up for her. What some viewers might not realize is that they’ve been best friends for years, with Biles acting as Chiles’ mentor. Three years ago, Chiles was close to pulling out entirely due to her fading passion for competition and the grind’s impact on her personal time and space. But Biles convinced her to leave an intense coach and train at Biles’ own gym, where coaches Cecile and Laurent Landi emphasize giving gymnasts rest to balance their strict workouts and lives outside the gym. Chiles quickly regained her love for it, and her comeback landed the team a silver medal. “I discovered that gymnastics doesn’t always have to be about strictness and being so hard on yourself and having so much doubt. I realized this when I saw Simone compete. She looks like she’s having fun out there…I was like, ‘You know, I’m going to try that one of these days and see how it turns out.’”
Intense competition also saw spirit-lifting friendship when two high jumpers agreed to share gold for the first time in history. After tying at 2.37 meters, instead of a jump-off, Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Essa Barshim prized mutual respect. Solidifying their bond was the fact that they had survived similar injuries before the Olympics. “I respect all the high jumpers…but Mutaz passed through the same problem as me, and I know what it means to come back from that injury.”
His words struck a chord with me as an athlete who recently returned to soccer from a serious injury. Being sidelined from the sport you love can be taxing physically and emotionally, no less hard for a high schooler than an Olympic medalist, and I know the satisfaction of recovery. The only bounceback more inspiring than overcoming an injury is returning with your best friend at your side, scoring gold together.
As Biles and Chiles supported each other and Tamberi and Barshim lifted each other to greater heights, I saw more overlap between competition and friendship than the pressure of performance used to have me believe. I’m not heading to the Olympics anytime soon. But I’ll take that with me into my next semester of school, soccer season, and everything else that lies ahead.
—Maya Mukherjee is a Mother Jones intern entering junior year of high school. Share comments and Recharge boosts at firstname.lastname@example.org.