In This Episode
This podcast is now a Simone Biles stan account. ESPN’s Alyssa Roenigk joins to talk about the Olympics as a problematic fave and Biles as an unproblematic one. Women’s gymnastics did a number on a lot of us as young people — the unrealistic body expectations, the idea of “tough love” as the best way to coach. That culture is changing and we celebrate that. On Adorables Like These, it’s time to talk to the “sensitive one” in the Pod Save America boy band, Tommy Vietor, who tells us about his bath mat with a pulse, Lucca. (CW for gymnastics conversation: sexual abuse and eating disorders.)
Ana Marie Cox: Hi, I’m Ana Marie Cox. Welcome to With Friends Like These. This is our Olympics episode and more specifically, our Olympics gymnastics episode and even more specifically, our fan-girling Simone Biles episode. And I have to say, if you do not know who Simone Biles is, I would like you to pause the podcast, go over to YouTube, look at some videos and come back. All right. Now we’re all on the same page. All of these topics fit squarely into the wheelhouse of With Friends Like These, because the first two Olympics and gymnastics are, let’s say, problematic faves. And because Simone Biles epitomizes a lot of what I want this show to be: empowering and joyful, thought provoking, meaningful. I’ll be talking to Alyssa Roenigk from ESPN magazine about all of these topics. I do want to give you a quick content warning because we do discuss the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. And if that’s something you don’t want to hear right now, I hope you come back some other time, because in the end, what this particular episode is about is about reclaiming your power and expressing the joy you feel to the world. Alyssa Roenigk talking about Simone Biles and other things coming right up.
Ana Marie Cox: Alyssa, welcome to the show.
Alyssa Roenigk: Thank you so much for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Ana Marie Cox: We are not speaking to you from Tokyo, although you are covering the Olympics. That’s the first weird thing about the Olympics this year, right?
Alyssa Roenigk: It is. And it is weird for me personally, this would have been my eighth Olympics and I am covering it from home in California. And as a company, we made decisions around how many people we would send and personally, I made a decision that I did not want to travel to Tokyo. And it was a really tough decision to make. But I am happy with the decision.
Ana Marie Cox: Let’s talk a little bit about how this particular Olympics is so different, right? I guess, first of all, there’s a pandemic, which is what the reason you’re not there. It was delayed/canceled, now is back on, but there’s some continuing controversy about whether or not it should be happening.
Alyssa Roenigk: Yes, and certainly within Japan. You know, all of the reporting coming out of Japan is that the people, the locals, especially in Tokyo, are terrified of this Olympics. You know, they’ve been closed off to the world for most of the past year and a half, they have been largely safe. Their number of deaths is far below what we experienced here in the U.S., and now they’re opening up to tens of thousands of athletes and support staff to come in to Tokyo and all that brings with it. And I think the people of Japan don’t understand why the IOC is going ahead with the event. And at the same time, I think they, they know why.
Ana Marie Cox: [laughs] I was going to say, I have an answer.
Alyssa Roenigk: At the same time, I think they know why, but they still want their voices to be heard. And there’s a Tim Keown from ESPN wrote a great piece I just read this morning about, that was based on local reporting and, you know, for the people of Japan and to stand up and speak out so publicly about an event that is historically filled with so much national pride, says a lot about how they feel about these games.
Ana Marie Cox: And I just want to go a little bit into the specifics of why this is such a problem. First of all, as you said, it had a pretty low COVID fatality rate among nations, and that’s now at risk. But the thing that I had not thought about is the number of health care workers that they have and that they might need. And that’s what this influx of people and potentially like, super-spreading events, that will stress their system. It’s not just like, oh, we might have more COVID. It’s the number of health care workers you might need should this go super. And then I wonder if you agree, this seems to me just a hyperbolic expression of the problem with the Olympics in general.
Alyssa Roenigk: Yeah, I mean, I think you’re right. I think, you know, we we know there are issues from the you know, if I look back at Rio and the displacement of people to build venues, you look back at Beijing and the displacement of people to build venues, you look at these massive, expensive venues that are left largely unused for most of the time afterwards—there’s a few Olympic venues that have and cities that have done it right, but the cost on the organizing committee and the organizing city tends to never be outweighed by the benefit and by the money that comes into into the city that they are promised when they agreed to the Olympics. So I do think that this year is, everything that is wrong with the Olympic model, like you said, just magnified by 100 because of the pandemic.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, the numbers behind the Olympics are really astonishing. The amount of money they make for certain people, including the IOC, right? Which I read one article that said the IOC is the most corrupt sports organization on the planet, and that’s including FIFA, which I found pretty jaw dropping. So it makes a ton of money for them and for the broadcasters. And then you’re right, like it leaves the cities, the host cities, millions of dollars in debt and sometimes with also the legacy of a lot of human rights abuse or exploitation. So this is the Olympics, probably the Olympics magnified, and yet are you excited to watch them?
Alyssa Roenigk: Way to set me up there, Ana. Yeah. I mean, it’s, you know, there’s a part of your brain, I think, as a sports fan that wishes you could divorce the competition from all that’s going on around it and just be in awe of the incredible athletes and what they’re about to do. It is not possible. It’s no different from watching the NFL or any sport where, you know, there are bigger issues at play beyond the sport you’re watching. All of that said, I guarantee you that when the U.S. women’s gymnastics team takes to the floor for the first time on Saturday, I will be both watching as a journalist and as a mega-fan of these women.
Ana Marie Cox: So that nationalism piece that we both feel right, admittedly, is thrilling, but it’s not exactly an argument for the games. What is an argument for them?
Alyssa Roenigk: If we could be in a perfect world and maybe redraw and reimagine the Olympics, certainly any time you can take sports and bring together the best in the world at any sport there is, and it’s also, it’s an incredible platform for smaller sports. Here in the United States where different from a lot of countries in that we have just a massive platter of sports that we can watch any day. And at the same time, we have an incredible number of brilliant athletes who do not receive support, do not make the kind of money the big four athletes do, are not name recognized. You know they could be, you know, I can say some of the sports I cover, you know, the biggest sport, biggest name in the sport could be in your living room and you would just ask to get off your couch because you don’t know who he or she is. And so the Olympics takes those athletes and elevates them on a world stage. And it also in many countries creates funding around those sports. When softball comes back into the Olympics, as it did now in 2021, money will flow into that sport. Skateboarding and surfing and freestyle BMX and sport climbing made their, are making their debut in Tokyo. Money will flow into those sports in countries that perhaps never supported them. And so I think that is a real purist argument for the Olympics, but taking, you know, quote unquote “amateurism, amateur” athletes and putting them on a world stage and creating support and funding and fans around them is probably the purest argument for having an Olympics.
Ana Marie Cox: Because you’re right, the sports that you wind up watching, if you’re an insomniac, I guess at this point, I’m always, I forget about and then am fascinated by the trampoline gymnastics [laughs].
Alyssa Roenigk: As you should be, as you should be.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s a thing! When they ran out onto the floor, the rhythmic, I know rhythmic gymnastics exists. For some reason that sticks in my mind. But when they announced the gymnastics team for the U.S. this year, it included the rhythmic gymnasts and the trampoline gymnasts and I was kind of like: right on! You get out there with Simone, you get out there, and throw up your arms. Right?
Alyssa Roenigk: Well, it, those athletes typically make, you know, we have them on the Olympic teams previously but something that was different this year, being at trials in St. Louis was that all of their trials were in the same place. So when the teams were named, all of those athletes, men and women, were all in St. Louis and able to come out onto the floor together. So, and those of us covering it, maybe if we wouldn’t have covered those other events, we’re able to go into the other arenas and watch them compete and be there to cover those events as well.
Ana Marie Cox: Let’s take a quick break.
Ana Marie Cox: And now I want to get to the real reason I have you here, which is to talk about gymnastics. Like every American, I develop a quadrennial obsession, although it’s a little, it picks up a little bit in there between Olympics. You’ve been covering gymnastics for a while. Yes?
Alyssa Roenigk: I have. Yes. I started at ESPN around 2003 and my first Summer Olympics that I covered was 2008 but I started covering the sport a few years before that for the magazine.
Ana Marie Cox: Did you bring an existing interest to it?
Alyssa Roenigk: Oh yes. Yes. I, you know, I, like millions and millions and millions of kids in in the US, grew up doing gymnastics and, you know, was glued to my television every, you know, four years and then when we started to have world championships and different things, access to those watching them. And, you know, I can, I remember, you know, watching I, you know, I remember being gosh, I must have been three, and I, I remember Mary Lou on the, on the podium stand. I remember that vault. So, yes, I brought a real fandom of of gymnastics and the Olympics in general and a lot of Olympic sports and, you know, went to editors and said, this is something I really want to cover. And, you know, I’m fortunate to work somewhere where the answer tends to be yes, when you ask those questions.
Ana Marie Cox: It’s changed a lot since you’ve started covering it, it seems.
Alyssa Roenigk: Yeah, I mean, to put it mildly, in so many ways, the sport has changed and the way we cover it has changed.
Ana Marie Cox: How has it changed since you started covering it?
Alyssa Roenigk: Well, in two ways. On the sports side of things, I, you know, that 2008 Olympics was right when the International Gymnastics Federation switched from the ten-point, perfect ten scale of judging to this open-ended style of judging that really rewards difficulty. And what we’ve seen in the past now, 13 years since that shift is because difficulty is so greatly rewarded and because it takes experience and strength and time to learn and perfect the kind of skills that Simone Biles, Suni Lee, these great gymnasts are doing, we’re seeing longer careers. We’re seeing older gymnasts. We’re seeing different body types—strong, muscular, able to take the pounding, body types. And so the sport itself has really changed in those years. And then certainly because of 2016 and all that has happened since it and the Larry Nassar scandal, the way we cover it, the way we ask questions, the way, you know, the athletes have become empowered and begun using the voices that we know they always had but they were fearful of using, unconfident in their own voices—that has, that has changed as well.
Ana Marie Cox: I also did gymnastics as a kid, I remember Mary Lou. I remember Thunder Thighs, that’s what they called her. That gave me hope because I’m a little on the square side. And then I wound up having breasts and hips, so my future was not in gymnastics.
Alyssa Roenigk: You were just ahead of your time.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes. And I also, so I followed it kind of from the person of a kind of wishful thinking, but also someone who I think understands a little bit what it takes. So I remember Little Girls in Pretty Boxes coming out 199—
Alyssa Roenigk: Five. ’95.
Ana Marie Cox: Five. And it was a big deal. It was about gymnastics and figure skating, and it uncovered eating disorders, over-prescription of painkillers, abusive coaching—but that didn’t seem to move the needle that much. Like anyone who’s been paying attention to the sport knows that those undercurrents were there, right?
Alyssa Roenigk: Yeah, I mean, Joan Ryan, who wrote Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, you know, I would say it’s shocking looking back. And now, of course, we all cite that book and talk about that book. I remember it coming out. I was in high school, I remember reading that book. And you’re right, it did not move the needle. You know, USA Gymnastics deflected any question about it. They denied any attempts to investigate further the claims. You know, they did, from the outside it sure seemed they did not take it seriously, and from, you know, from my reporting on the inside, they not only did not take it seriously, they tried to squash Joan’s reporting. And the next summer. You had the Magnificent Seven in The Greatest Team, to that point, in the history of American gymnastics, and suddenly, you know, as we’ve learned over and over again, those cheers drowned out all of the questions and complaints and feelings you have about all of the negative sides of the sport. And I do think that’s what happened, is even journalists who read that book, and coaches and parents, they just look the other way. I mean, it’s now in hindsight, it is hard to understand why there was not more of a reaction. And I think, you know, now one of the reasons I believe there wasn’t more of a reaction to that book was because it was easy for those with inside the sport to dismiss Joan as an outsider who just didn’t get it. And that’s why it took Dominique Moceanu and her book, why it took the gymnasts themselves in 2016 to finally say, you can’t dismiss us anymore. This is coming from inside the house. But I think that’s largely what happened with Joan’s book and you know, I interviewed Joan last year for a project and she said the day the Nassar story broke, she, you know, she broke down because she just thought, you know, I, what more could I have done? Why was no one listening back then?
Ana Marie Cox: And you did a ton of reporting on the culture of gymnastics, the culture of elite gymnastics for a podcast series that came out, I suppose it was timed to the 2020 Olympics. But everyone should go listen to it now: Heavy Metals. And you documented that culture that’s so pervasive, the gymnasts themselves bought into it.
Alyssa Roenigk: Yeah. I mean, so the term ‘bought into it’ is so interesting, right, because there’s there’s sort of—
Ana Marie Cox: I want to give them agency a little bit so that they have—sorry, you can just talk.
Alyssa Roenigk: No, I mean, you’re the reason it’s so interesting is because, yes, there is agency in them choosing to buy into the culture. But there’s sort of two things at play. One is that they don’t know there’s another option, so what they are buying into is their dream of being the greatest. And, you know, if anyone’s ever met a 13, 14, 15-year old girl with a dream, she is fierce and unstoppable and coaches play on that, they know that. And the other part of it is that they are being constantly gaslit. They are being told “you’re fat” when they’re hungry and “you’re lazy” when they’re exhausted, and “your foot doesn’t hurt” when it’s broken—and so they stop having the ability to trust their own experience and worldview and what they believe is happening to them. And so all of that results in, yes, them becoming good soldiers who do what they are told and ask no questions because they believe that is the only way to get to their goal, which is to become an Olympic gymnast.
Ana Marie Cox: And I have a few questions about the culture changing. I think it’s interesting that these systemic changes happened sort of alongside that, the age of gymnasts kind of rising a little bit, the kind of body that’s acceptable in gymnastics changing a little bit. Is that another reason why? I mean, I guess I’m just looking for like what it took, like what was, what made it possible for people, these young women, to start speaking out? Did just take one really brave person?
Alyssa Roenigk: It took a handful of really brave women because, you know, it’s hard, it’s hard to know what we don’t know, right? It’s hard to, it’s hard to project what would have happened had the Larry Nassar scandal not broke in 2016. Would we still be in the same place we were five years ago? Would he still be abusing young women? Would the gymnasts we interact with still be closed off and unwilling and fearful of speaking their minds? It’s very possible. When that story broke because of fearlessness, and that’s probably not even the right word because there was a ton of fear around what would happen to them by women like Jamie Dantzscher and Rachel Denhollander and Maggie Nichols. Once, you know, it was one and then it was two and then it was 51, and then it was 200, and as the numbers grew and these women realized, well, if I, if I know this, if I knew this thing was happening to me but I believed I was wrong about it in my own mind, or no one would believe me, or I wouldn’t have support, and all of these other women are experiencing the same thing, well what other things are we experiencing together? What other shared experiences do we have? And as they spoke out and they received such incredible support, including at his hearing, at Nassars hearing, when they all had the opportunity to stand up and speak out and, you know, and speak their truths, that really was the moment that changed everything. And that all came from the athletes. And one voice supported another, voice magnified another voice, and as they each spoke out, it gave permission and support to the others to do the same. And I think that moment is what changed the culture of the sport. And it has a long way to go. But that’s the moment.
Ana Marie Cox: I, of course, have been reading a lot about Simone Biles in preparation for my ecstatic two weeks of obsession with gymnastics, and it occurred to me I almost feel weird talking about her because she’s so talked about. Like there are other amazing gymnasts, but the more I read about her, the more I thought she epitomizes a, she epitomizes some of these changes on a few different levels. Not just the body type, not just the age.
Alyssa Roenigk: Yeah, I mean, you know, first of all, to what we were just speaking about, using your voice, Simone in 2016 was already the most famous gymnast maybe ever, certainly in the world, one of the biggest names in all of sports, but she did not yet realize the power she had, the voice that she had. You know, that gaslighting goes a real, it’s, it goes pretty deep. And so she talks about the fact that, you know, yes, on paper, she could read a story about who Simone Biles was and how important she was, but to actually believe it was another thing. And if you remember, in 2018, she first tweeted right before Larry Nassar’s hearing. Once she realized she, too, had been abused by him and was a survivor, she tweeted this out, and as part of her tweet, she said: I can’t believe as I plan my return to the gym to attempt to make my second Olympic team that I will have to return to the place where I was abused for years. Referring to the Karolyi Ranch in Houston and there had been calls to shut down the ranch. USA Gymnastics was planning to buy it, that was going to be their legacy and this was going to continue to be the training facility for generations to come. And they cut ties the next day. And she you know, she realized in that moment, and everyone realized, wow, you know, she has a powerful voice and she wields it with responsibility, but she knows that when she tweets something, whether it is about a new president who, you know, Mary Bono was hired as USA gymnastics president and she tweeted out a photo of her scratching out her Nike logo on her shoes after Colin Kaepernick was picked up by Nike. And Simone tweeted out: oh, it’s not like we needed a better president or more sponsors. And Bono was gone four days later. I mean, there was a series of these kind of events where she realized I, I have a voice, by using it, I give all of these other gymnasts permission to use their voices. And she has I mean, she has created such change. Even small things. I remember working on the podcast and having a gymnast from the ’88 team say she remembers the day she first saw Simone Biles tweet a photo of pizza. And she texted all of her friends from, you know, the ’80s and said, oh, my gosh, can you imagine, we live in a world now where a gymnast feels comfortable telling the world she eats pizza, or showing a picture of herself on vacation. Because, of course, you’re when you’re not in the gym, you’re supposed to be sleeping. Or a picture of her in a bikini or with her boyfriend. And as small as that was, by showing her life and the real side of her life, it gave all these other women permission to do the same. And I think also the other thing that it did was you, if everything Simone does is authentic, then when she is tweeting about social justice, when she is tweeting about the foster care system, it makes those tweets and those statements equally authentic.
Ana Marie Cox: Let’s take another quick break.
[clip of Simone Biles] I feel like you should never settle just because you’re winning or you’re at the top. I feel like you should always push yourself.
[reporter] Simone I think week, I think it was last week, you tweeted after the congressional report came out about being continued, continuing to be disappointed.
[clip of Simone Biles] Yes.
[reporter] What are your feelings about that specifically? And why is it so important for you to continue using your voice on this?
[clip of Simone Biles] I think it’s important because we have a platform and I think when we tweet, it obviously goes a long way. So we’re blessed to be given a platform so that people will hear and listen. But, you know, it’s not easy coming back to the sport, coming back to the organization that has failed you. But, you know, at this point, I just try to think I’m here as a professional athlete with my club team and stuff like that. Because it’s not easy being out here, because I feel like every day is a reminder of what I went through and what I’ve been through and what I’m going through and how I come, how I’ve come out of it, but, you know, I try just not to think about it. But it is hard. But once you see that, like the FBI even was on it and he like drank with Steve Penny and stuff, it’s like, did you guys really not like us that much that you couldn’t just do your job? And at the end of the day, it’s really sad for us because it becomes a problem whenever we work with future people, how can we trust them? They bring in new people all the time and I automatically put my foot up because the people that I had known for years had failed us. So it’s hard for them to bring anyone up to us. I don’t know, it’s hard to talk about. It’s really hard to talk about. I just feel like, I don’t know, I don’t mean to cry, but it’s just it’s hard coming here for an organization and having had them failed us so many times. And we, we had won gold. We’d done everything that they asked us for even when we didn’t want to, and they couldn’t do one damn job. You had one job. You literally had one job and you couldn’t protect us. And it’s just really sad because now every time I go to the doctor or training, I get worked on, it’s like: I don’t want to get worked on. But my body hurts. I’m 22 and at the end of the day, that’s my fifth rotation and I have [cut?] therapy. But it’s just hard and we try to work through it, but it will take some time. I’m strong, I’ll get through it, but it’s hard.
Ana Marie Cox: I want to talk about Simone some more.
Alyssa Roenigk: I’d talk about Simone all day long
Ana Marie Cox: I have had the experience of trying to tell someone how good she is, and it’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t follow at all. I’m like, she’s the greatest athlete that’s ever existed. I, I, I think that you can really make that argument, she dominates her sport in a way that Michael Jordan, nope. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, whoever you want to think about, doesn’t dominate like she does.
Alyssa Roenigk: OK, I’m going, I’m going to try and give you a good cheat sheet for around the water cooler. I always try to think of, you know, if you’re sitting at the bar next to someone and they happen to be an expert, what are a few pieces of where some gems you can throw out? So I think the first thing I would say is there has been a belief for the past about 50 years, and because it has it happened, that the reigning world champion cannot stay good enough to, you know, you sort of peek, you have your year, maybe your two years, but the reigning world champion does not then back it up by winning Olympic gold. And that theory is held up by the fact that we haven’t seen that in more than 50 years. So in 2013, Simone Biles won her first world championship medal, gold medal, she has won every one she’s competed in since. She is the defending Olympic, all around, gold medalist, and so she will go into, she goes into these Olympics as the seven-time world champion. She didn’t compete in 2018 and so Morgan Hurd from the United States as the 2018 world champion. She’s the only world champion not named Simone Biles, since the last, since the 2012 Olympics in London. And so that idea that you have this window of a year, maybe two years to be great, has been shattered by the fact that Simone Biles has not lost an all-around competition in any meet she has competed in nearly a decade.
Ana Marie Cox: She fell twice. In the Olympic trials, which was gasps everywhere. I almost want to talk just about her reaction to that too, which is another kind of change in the sport. She got emotional and her coach came over and kind of just how are you doing, you know? And it was so significant the commentators commented on that, like seeing the change.
Alyssa Roenigk: Yeah, I wish, I was there so I wasn’t able to hear what they were saying, but what I imagine they were talking about—you know I remember an interview with Jordyn Wieber, who was the defending world champion in London and was part of that gold medal winning team, now is the head coach at Arkansas, would say when you were overcome with emotion, no matter what that emotion was, her coach would look at her and say, fix your face. And that would mean show no emotion, become a robot, suck it up, swallow it, you are a gymnast, you’re performing right now, the world does not need to know what’s going on inside of your mind. And Simon is very much, by her coaches, and I think most of the women now encouraged to be a human being and feel whatever you are feeling and it’s OK if the world sees you cry. It is very unusual to see Simone cry. Even the people in her life say it is not something you see often. But, you know, she was so far ahead of the rest of the field, those tears were not about her potentially not winning the meet. There was very little possibility of that happening. Her routines are so far more difficult than the rest of the world that she can fall and still win meets. But she was she was disappointed in herself because she didn’t do the best she knew she could do. And she also knows that all those folks in the stands were there largely to watch her, watch her possibly compete for the last time in the United States and she felt like she had let them down. And she said afterwards, that’s what the tears were really about.
Ana Marie Cox: Yes. And we went to the cul de sac of her reaction, but the buried lede here is she still fucking won. Like [laughs] and when I say she fell, she fell. Fell, fell, fell on the ground, it wasn’t like a wobble. But you’re right, her degree of difficulty is just so much higher than everyone else’s, when she doesn’t complete something very difficult, it just doesn’t count as much against her.
Alyssa Roenigk: You know, she competes routines, another thing for the water cooler when you’re making this argument, it is a, it is a monumental deal in the sport of gymnastics to have a skill bear your name in the point, in the code of points. And that what that means is you are the first woman in women’s gymnastics, you’re the first woman to compete the skill in an international meet. So either you came up with the idea for the skill or maybe it’s something that had been competed in the men’s side of the sport, but you were the first woman to do the skill in an international meet. After Tokyo, where she’s planning to compete a vault that no one has competed before, and she did it last night in podium training and it was phenomenal, she will have five skills that bear her name. So when you watch her during a meet, she is not just doing difficult skills, she’s doing, you know, when the announcers, you know, when she does her two floor passes, they’re like, oh, she just “into a Biles, OK, into the Biles 2.” She’s that far ahead of the rest of the field.
Ana Marie Cox: Would you describe just one of those Biles’s.
Alyssa Roenigk: Well, the one she’s about to do in Tokyo that she’s never done before—so quickly, she has a double double dismount off vault. Or, sorry. So quickly, she has a double double dismount off beam. And her coach, Cecile Landi, told me when she was competing, she competed for France in ’96, that wasn’t even done on floor. It was unthinkable to do it off beam. She has two layouts with a half twist at the end of the floor, she has—which is beautiful—she has a triple double on floor, which is two flips and three spins, so three 360 degree turns.
Ana Marie Cox: I want to just pause on that. Just let’s just, let’s just think through what that, what that move is. So for people that may not have seen this, I want to give a, somehow give an oral description that will do justice to how amazing these moves are, so we don’t just tell people go to YouTube. So she does a floor pass, round off, back handspring—I don’t know how many she does to gain momentum—then she does it backhand, she launches into the air and what happens?
Alyssa Roenigk: Well, the first thing that happens is out of what is considered the best handspring in the history of the sport, which gains her so much forward momentum and so much speed and so much power, she gets so high into the air—you know, it’s so much fun to watch the men’s meet before hers because she’s getting higher than most of the men—and then that allows her the time to perform two back flips. And on that first back flip, she’s spinning twice. So two full rotations and then another back flip with another full rotation. And she completes all of that with time to spot the ground. And it is rare to see her land short. If anything, she tends to land with so much power and so much force that she rebounds so far out of bounds, which is a deduction. But watching her last night, she was she was spot on, man. Not a, not a toe out of bounds.
Ana Marie Cox: I want to go back to talk about how her story intertwines with the way that gymnastics is changing. Because it turns out one of the reasons perhaps why she’s become so extraordinary is that she did not train exactly the same way that everyone else wound up training. She, for instance, started, quote unquote, “late” At six years old. [laughs] And do you want to go over some of the other differences, how she came up?
Alyssa Roenigk: Yeah, and one of the one of the beautiful things about Simone Biles being the most famous gymnast/athlete in the world in the years since the Larry Nassar scandal and all the conversation also around abusive coaching and that’s emotional abuse, that’s physical abuse, psychological abuse—is that she became the greatest gymnast in the world a different way? You know, I remember talking to Coach Val Kondos, the former coach at UCLA, and she said if anything should be studied in her story, it is her support system because they are the greatest support system in the world. And so this idea that you have to scream and yell and berate and belittle and break down an athlete in order to make them want to be great, is just thrown out the window. She had this incredibly supportive set of parents. She had a coach who had never coached an elite gymnast, who was not vying to become an Olympic coach, and protected her. The first time Simone was invited to a training camp at the Karolyi, Marta Karolyi just railed her. You know, all these other coaches were like, oh, my gosh, she’s amazing, she did such a great job, she has so much power, she’ll rein it in. And Simone was bubbly and giggly and like to talk to everyone, and that was not how Marta ran her gym. And Aimee, in consult with Simone’s parents, decided to keep her out of the next camp. They declined the next camp and in retaliation, Marta said. Well, then, we’ll see you later. And she wasn’t invited back for more than a year, but Aimee will say if she had taken her back that next week and she had been subject, you know, month after month to that same treatment, she’d be done. She’d be, you know, or she would be, you know, she had committed to UCLA, she’d probably be an incredible collegiate gymnast, we’d all watch her viral videos, but she would not be the Simon Biles we know today. And Simone has said, if I had that kind of coaching, I would have quit. You know, I’m not the kind of person that can deal with that. And so that next year was 2013, Simone starts winning everything and of course, Marta can’t deny talent and she and she is invited back. But as she won multiple world titles, you know, she had some power in that gym and so did Aimee. And so she, Aimee would say no when Marta said ten more even though your ankles hurting or you have an Achilles issue. And when she went back to the gym, she was encouraged to be joyful and interact with her teammates and she, even during that Karolyi reign, was coached differently. Her parents, her mom has told me that she you know, she did not like a lot of the rules. There was a very big role that parents were not allowed to stay in the same hotel as the gymnasts, and Nellie broke that rule. And because of all that support and because she was allowed to remain joyful and herself, we see this incredible gymnast. But it makes you wonder how many Simone Biles have there been with the talent, the body type, the want, and as Aimee would say, maybe more success earlier? You know, Simone wasn’t successful as a junior. How many incredible gymnasts lie broken along the path that Simone has taken, whose names we either don’t know or we knew for a short period of time?
Ana Marie Cox: So after 2016, she said she was going to take time off and a deserved break. People, do whatever you want, Queen. She came back. And I’ve heard her say in interviews that something that she takes a lot of meaning from is that she is one of the Nassar survivors out there competing, reminding people that it happened and that people survived.
Alyssa Roenigk: She is the only Nassar survivor who is still competing. And she 100%, she knows that she holds USA gymnastics feet to the fire. She knows that while she’s competing. Even if she is unable to talk about it and it’s mentally and emotionally really exhausting and taxing on her to do so, that we will write about it, that it will keep shining a light on the fact that the survivors still don’t have a settlement, they still don’t have answers. They still don’t have what they feel is an independent investigation into who knew what, when, and why they did nothing. And so she is a constant reminder of both, like you said, it happened, and we are not going to, quote unquote, “move past it” as I think USAG would like to do, but also that there is life and success and joy after something like this.
Ana Marie Cox: So talking about Simone feels different to me than a lot of other things, for some reason. It gives me joy to talk about her. You know what I mean? Like, it’s somehow meaningful, and I think it’s for a thousand reasons. She’s amazing, she’s a person of color, she survived all this, she performs with such joy. You’ve been covering her. I wonder what it feels like for you.
Alyssa Roenigk: I mean, as you’re asking me this question, you can see I have a giant smile on my face. I feel privileged. Joy is a wonderful word, but I also feel privileged to have covered this era of gymnastics and Simone in general. I feel privileged to have watched her, you know, in Stuttgart at the, at the 2019 World Championships debut that beam dismount I told you about. To see the triple double in person, to have watched her one more time in St. Louis, to have watched her and that incredible team in Rio—it is truly a privilege to share even that 1% of her story. But I think joyful is the perfect term. You know, I mean, she, we did a piece one time and I think probably every outlet has done this where you count the number of giggles in a Simone Biles interview. And I’ve seen some quick cuts on Twitter where people just cut from giggle to giggle to giggle to giggle. And I think you have, you know, that, the giggling is both because she is joyful and I think it’s also as a, as a giggler myself, it is also, I think, a way you laugh through hard times and it takes a bit of toughness and joyfulness to be someone who can giggle in the face of all she has been through. But, you know, you see or hear Simone Biles laugh, and when she does it during a routine! That to me is one of the most joyful things. And you see her land a triple double and not grimace in pain, like I think the rest of the world would by even attempting something like that. She just has this massive smile on her face. And, yeah, if that’s what the Olympics are supposed to be about and those moments of bringing the world together and we all stop and hold our breath and watch these incredible athletes, you know, she, I am so glad she is the face of her sport and of the Tokyo Olympics.
Ana Marie Cox: Another reason why I do feel like somehow licensed to be able to fangirl about her so much, is that from what I see, again, as someone who’s not, like, covering it up close, she’s so good. She is so far above everyone else. No one’s even mad. Like, everyone loves her.
Alyssa Roenigk: She might debate you on this, because certainly there are, there is that—
Ana Marie Cox: Maybe there are some exceptions.
Alyssa Roenigk: —segment that, you know, we’re going to hate the Yankees because they want too much. Right? Or hate the, you know Tom Brady.
Ana Marie Cox: The Microsoft phenomena I call it, sometimes, yeah.
Alyssa Roenigk: 100% But within the sport. everyone cheers for her, and part of that reason is not just because she is so good, it is because she is the most giving, caring, she is so supportive of the other athletes. And that is her teammates at World Champion Center, but that also is for the other girls on the on the national team. I mean, there is just story after story after story of how she lifts up the women around her, and that is largely why she is she is so beloved within the sport. It is she could be the best in the world and not have time for anyone else, and she just couldn’t be more different than that. I mean, she takes so much time to teach and share and support and love the women around her and yeah, I just, I don’t know that we will ever see anyone like someone Biles again.
Ana Marie Cox: You talked a little bit about the joy you get from covering her. I’m curious about what else you might have gotten out of covering gymnastics. It’s been a journey. I would, I would think it’s as they say.
Alyssa Roenigk: Well, as you were asking that, I was thinking, you know, the flip side of the joy you get out of watching Simone, out of covering Simone is the anger that fuels the work you’re doing. Because if adults, the adults in the room, if the system can fail her—and again, I think this is why, something she knows is on people’s minds—if the system and the coaching staff and the adults in power can fail Simon Biles, when she is gone and is not the face of the sport, what is going to keep this from happening again? You know, if, what is going to keep the sport and the governing body in check? And so watching her and being so overjoyed and entertained and, you know, sort of filled with sort of love and euphoria, and all the things that Simon Biles represents, I think fuels that angry questioning side of your brain that wants to make sure that people are held accountable and that this does not happen again.
Ana Marie Cox: How has covering the sport changed you or taught you? Because it’s, like I said, it’s there’s been a lot. There’s the years of covering it, just as with the abuse being kind of just a thing that happens, right, in the background. There’s the Nassar experience, which was very triggering and traumatic for a lot of women to just hear about. And then there is this joy that comes after that. But what does that been like for you?
Alyssa Roenigk: Well, I think the first thing, that certainly the years after 2016 changed was the way I personally, as someone who is largely focused on the athletes and the telling of their stories and the questioning and the scrutiny is largely placed on the performer, I believe, I held a belief that especially in a lot of the sports I cover are populated the best of the athletes are very young, and I do believe I held the belief that the adults in the room care first and foremost about the health and well-being of children. And I no longer believe that. And it has changed for me the way I look at all sports, cover all sports, the questions I ask. And the way I hold myself accountable in the stories that I tell. And I think that’s something that’s happened for all of us. You know, I think we thought we were being vigilant, and under the noses of every journalist, every parent, every coach the greatest abuse scandal in Olympic history happens. And so, you know, it’s hard not to become cynical person after this. But the other thing that it has done is, you know, every conversation I have had with a gymnast over the past five years and certainly with the Nassar survivors, has reminded me of the power, the fierce power of a, of a, you know, of a woman, of a woman gymnast. I mean, all of the things that made these women the greatest in the world, they sort of realize, oh, wow, that same power I have within myself to change the world and to make the sport better for the next generation. And it has been such a privilege. I mean, working on that podcast was a great privilege of my life. And every athlete who agreed to an interview and agreed to sit down across from us and share their story, changed me in some way. Every single one of them.
Ana Marie Cox: So we do, we talk a lot about self-care on this podcast. And a lot about, as corny as it sounds, believing in yourself, cultivating self-worth. And I think one of the reasons why gymnastics has become again, so emotional for me, like I have such emotional investment in it, is that for a long time gymnastics was the place that I started to feel bad about my body.
Alyssa Roenigk: I think that’s true for, yeah, for so many of us. You know, and I think, and what I learned in those, in so many of those interviews, the gymnasts, what was, one of the things that was very hard was the gymnasts, these gymnasts that I grew up idolizing as a child, I am now sitting across from and hearing the same thing. And not just their body, but they hated themselves. You know, it took them decades, and they’re still not there getting over the trauma of their experience. As, you know, and we’re lifting them up on this pedestal and celebrating them, and behind the scenes, they are not being treated as humans. You know, the sport broke a lot of people who are not famous and whose names we don’t know.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah. A lot of eating disorders began in gymnastic studios that, among just young girls. But today! That’s why I love it today. You know, it’s changed. Like I, I can feel empowered by seeing those bodies. I know mine looks very different, but to see young women who don’t look like stick figures, who take pride and joy in the power of their thighs and their shoulders—like, it’s just an entirely different thing. I wonder if you as a woman, does that also echo with you? Maybe just as a person too, it’s not just women that have body issues.
Alyssa Roenigk: It absolutely does. I mean, watching sitting at trials this year, there were so many things that felt empowering about cheering for all of the women who were competing for those four spots on the team and six spots overall, and yes, one of them, 100% is looking at bodies and thinking, how different they probably would have felt about themselves during the Karolyi era, and how emboldened they are by what their bodies can do in 2021. And also looking at we have our first Hmong-American on the, on the team. We have two Black women. We have four Asian-American women on the alternate team. You know, this is a team that reflects what the country looks like. And it’s all, and it’s a group of bodies that reflect what, you know, an athletic body looks like. And they are women who use their voices. I mean, to think pre-2016 that we live in a world where not only do gymnasts tweet out about their social life and the food they’re eating, but social justice, and speak out in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and Morgan Hurd, who is a Chinese American adoptee and the 2018 world champion, has a megaphone and a bullhorn and is standing in in New York City at a, at a rally in the wake of anti-Asian hate crimes—I mean, it is a different world and they all empower me, completely. I mean, they are gymnasts who I want my nieces to hang posters of on their walls and want to be when they grow up. And it used to terrify me to think that they would want to join the sport of gymnastics.
Ana Marie Cox: That’s a great ending. [laughs] Alyssa, this has been so great talking to you. Thank you so much for coming on.
Alyssa Roenigk: You are so welcome. I so appreciate you having me on. And this has been a, yeah, it’s been an incredible conversation. Thank you so much.
Ana Marie Cox: Today on with Adorable Like These, you’ll hear from the sensitive one of the Pod Save America boy band: Tommy Vietor. Tommy is going to tell us about his living bathmat dog, Luka, and maybe break some news about a possible second adorable coming into his life.
Ana Marie Cox: Tommy?
Tommy Vietor: Hello.
Ana Marie Cox: Tommy. We’d like to talk about your adorable.
Tommy Vietor: Thank you, I’d love to.
Ana Marie Cox: Could you tell us your adorable’s name, and describe your adorable.
Tommy Vietor: I own a 25-pound bathmat with legs named Luka. She’s a little brown, graying, labradoodle dog. She is the only thing on the planet that can jump in bed at five a.m. and decide to slap her paws on my face, and I find it cute instead of enraging.
Ana Marie Cox: Is there a story behind Luka’s name?
Tommy Vietor: The story is my wife thought it up. I think, I think my wife Hannah, I think she knew a dog named Puka. And somehow it evolved to Luka, which is an Italian man’s name, and she’s a girl dog. So, yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. But you know over time—
Ana Marie Cox: Gender is a construct, Tommy.
Tommy Vietor: Yes. Yes, it is. It is indeed. And also, it’s a dog. But, um, yeah, we’ve had a lot of like, we’ve had, my family’s had a lot of animals over time. Luka’s the most sort of like serious sounding name. We had a cat named mouse. We had a dog named Fred. A dog named Bear who just passed away, very sad, I miss him. I know, it’s very sad.
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, those are all animal names.
Tommy Vietor: Yes. Those are like clearly animals.
Ana Marie Cox: Well, except Fred. I actually really like it when people name animals, like just some very normal sounding human name, especially a guys name.
Tommy Vietor: I do it. I always thought, some friends and I always joked that, like, would be really funny to give your dog like a famous full name. Like Oprah Winfrey, or like, you know, right? This is my dog, George Bush.
Ana Marie Cox: So I encourage you if, your next adorable, and I believe everyone should have more than one.
Tommy Vietor: So Hannah and I have been looking, I have in my head, so I have a cousin named Wendy Button who is a saint and one who just genuinely great people I’ve ever met, and one thing she’s done several times in her life is adopt an adult dog and kind of give this dog like the best years, eight to ten, you can possibly do. And that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, and looking a lot, and following a lot of local L.A. Shelters. And it’s just, as you know, it’s a very personal question about like where you are in your stage of life and timing and what makes sense for you. And so we’re thinking about it.
Ana Marie Cox: That’s great to hear. Like, With Friends Like These Exclusive!
Tommy Vietor: Breaking: considering . . .
Ana Marie Cox: Considering a second adorable.
Tommy Vietor: Considered a second.
Ana Marie Cox: So there’s sort of a combined question coming up, which is, is there a cause that Luka would support, combined with does she have a voice that you would be willing to do. And you can, so you could say the cause in the voice of Luka.
Tommy Vietor: For some reason, my wife and I kind of give our dog, like, kind of this like sad sack, like, woe is me. We’re like: um, I think you guys meant to give me some of that uh, salmon. Sort of like that kind of shit, which is not really creative in any way. The place I’ve been looking at for all these senior dogs is called A Purposeful Rescue in Los Angeles. They’re a 501C3 rescue organization. Travis Helwig of Crooked fame recommended them to us, because I think that’s where he got one or both of his pups. So that’s a wonderful organization. You could look up on Instagram, give them a follow. And they also will like, you what nice Ana? They’ll like rescue dogs and they’d be like, this is Patty, she has lost mobility in her back legs, she needs this medical care, Venmo is open if you want to, like, chip in for the surgery. You know? And I will admit to having opened the app, cried, shot over a quick 25 bucks or whatever and, you know, makes you feel better.
Ana Marie Cox: Tommy, you’re a softie.
Tommy Vietor: [laughs] I know.
Ana Marie Cox: I like, I mean that is what I love about you, but like in the boy band of Pod Save America, you’re the sensitive one.
Tommy Vietor: Who is the sensitive one? So in NSYNC or, like who’s the sensitive one.
Ana Marie Cox: The sensitive one? I’m not super familiar with boy bands, but I believe there’s like the hot one, the sensitive one.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah. There’s definitely like the emo guy,
Ana Marie Cox: Yeah, the emo one. You’re the emo guy.
Tommy Vietor: Thank you. Yeah. Like JT would just kind of be like the fuck boy, kind of jerk. I guess? I’ll write him off.
Ana Marie Cox: I’m going to push you just a little and maybe you’ll give us that rescue organization’s name in the voice of Luka?
Tommy Vietor: [in a woe-is-me voice] Um, it’s called A Purposeful Rescue, it’s a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, 501C3 rescue that loves the underdog. They, [laughs] back in my voice. They recently rescued this pup named, they call her Fast Patty. And she was found just in horrible conditions, sort of lost the back half of her legs. And I think they really specialize in helping dogs that are immobile regain mobility through like wheels and sort of like special harnesses and stuff. And it’s just the sweetest thing you’ve ever seen.
Ana Marie Cox: I really hope to meet your second dog someday.
Tommy Vietor: Thank you.
Ana Marie Cox: And we’ll have you back on.
Tommy Vietor: Thank you. He or she would like to meet you as well. We just got to get, Hannah’s like, let’s pull the trigger. And I’m like, let’s be practical. And, you know, that’s where we’re stuck.
Ana Marie Cox: Thank you so much, Tommy, for coming on.
Tommy Vietor: Thank you for having me. This is, genuinely going to be the best part of my day, so I appreciate it.
Ana Marie Cox: And that is it for the show. I’m going to keep this outro short, because you know what, I think Alyssa really stuck that landing. Take care yourselves.