Should she have jumped again?

Olympics, gymnastics, and a look back 25 years. Also: 7 other things worth your time.

We have a fairly long “7 other things today,” plus yesterday’s Understandably Live video. Also, it’s the weekend. So let me try to keep the intro a little shorter.

It’s about gymnastics, with the caveat that I know almost nothing about this sport. Like many Americans, I tune in every four years (five this time). But we start with sincere congratulations to Sunisa Lee for winning the all-around gymnastics gold at the Tokyo Olympics early yesterday, NYC time.

Just 18 years old, Lee has a story that’s so dramatic it feels as if it were made for the moment: overcoming injuries including a broken bone in her foot and an injured Achilles tendon, and the fact that her father was paralyzed from the chest down in an accident two years ago, and she lost both an aunt and uncle to Covid-19.

And of course, there’s the fact that Simone Biles withdrew from competition.

I’m with those who say Biles deserves praise for having the self-awareness to know when she needed to step out—but also (and I think this gets under-mentioned) to have stuck around and become the #1 cheerleader and coach for the rest of the team.

If nothing else, as another writer put it, a quarterback whose head isn’t in the game might throw an interception; a gymnast who has difficulty maintaining focus and spatial awareness can get seriously injured.

Speaking of seriously injured—my main thought-starter on all of this comes not from this year’s competition, but from the experience of Byron Heath, a fellow dad of daughters, who decided to sit down with his school-aged kids and watch the video of Kerri Strug’s 1996 gold medal performance.

What’s funny, sort of, is that I remembered this wrong—as many other people might have. I remembered Strug coming in at the last minute to pull off an amazing performance on the vault. It landed the US team a gold medal, but got her injured in the process.

Then she became famous, and was on a Wheaties box and Saturday Night Live and all that (heck of a good sport, by the way).

But my memory was a bit off— and, well… let’s just let Heath, a former teacher in Idaho who wrote about all this on Facebook, get a few words in. I reached out to him for permission to reprint the following, which went super-viral:

For some reason I wasn't as inspired watching it this time. In fact, I felt a little sick. Maybe being a father and teacher has made me soft, but all I could see was how Kerri Strug looked at her coach, Bela Karolyi, with pleading, terrified eyes, while he shouted back "You can do it!" over and over again.

My daughters didn't cheer when Strug landed her second vault. Instead they frowned in concern as she collapsed in agony and frantic tears.

"Why did she jump again if she was hurt?" one of my girls asked.

I made some inane reply about the heart of a champion or Olympic spirit, but in the back of my mind a thought was festering: She shouldn't have jumped again.

The more the thought echoed, the stronger my realization became. Coach Karolyi should have gotten his visibly injured athlete medical help immediately!

Now that I have two young daughters in gymnastics, I expect their safety to be the coach's number-one priority. Instead, Bela Karolyi told Strug to vault again. And he got what he wanted; a gold medal that was more important to him than his athlete's health.

I'm sure people will say "Kerri Strug was a competitor—she WANTED to push through the injury." That's probably true. But since the last Olympics we've also learned these athletes were put into positions where they could be systematically abused both emotionally and physically, all while being inundated with "win at all costs" messaging.

A teenager under those conditions should have been protected, and told, “No medal is worth the risk of permanent injury." In fact, we now know that Strug's vault wasn't even necessary to clinch the gold; the US already had an insurmountable lead.

Nevertheless, Bela Karolyi told her to vault again according to his own recounting of their conversation:

"I can't feel my leg," Strug told Karolyi.

"We got to go one more time," Karolyi said. "Shake it out."

"Do I have to do this again?" Strug asked.

"Can you, can you?" Karolyi wanted to know.

"I don't know yet," said Strug. "I will do it. I will, I will."

Strug pulled it off; it was iconic, but if you go back and look at the video, her pain was clear. Also, her injury ended her Olympic run (she had qualified in other events but couldn’t compete) … and her gymnastics career.

Again, I don’t know enough about 1996, or gymnastics, to say definitively what she should have done. I can’t wrap it in a bow, not least of all because Strug herself doesn’t seem to have any regrets. But it’s a reminder of how young these competitors are, how much weight is on their shoulders, and how hard it must be to perform at that level.

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Understandably Live: Boxabl CEO Paolo Tiramani

This was a great discussion yesterday. We talked about Elon Musk, Boxabl, the housing crisis, plans for the future, and the company’s first big government contract.

(Technical point: If anyone signed up for this but did not get a calendar invitation with the link to participate, can you let me know? We might need to find another way to let people into the discussions.)


7 other things

  • President Biden on Thursday called on state and local governments to use funds from his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to offer $100 payments to individuals in order to incentivize coronavirus vaccinations. “I know that paying people to get vaccinated might sound unfair to folks that have gotten vaccinated already but here’s the deal: if incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them,” Biden said. (The Hill)

  • An internal CDC presentation says the delta variant of the coronavirus appears to cause more severe illness than earlier variants and spreads as easily as chickenpox. The document strikes an urgent note, saying it’s so contagious that it “acts almost like a different novel virus, leaping from target to target more swiftly than Ebola or the common cold.” But at the same time, the CDC hasn’t yet published the underlying data they say they’re relying on. (Lots of experts are calling for it to be released.) (Washington Post, Chron.com)

  • New Zealand, Iceland, the UK, Tasmania, and Ireland are the places best suited to survive a global collapse of society, according to a study. New Zealand was found to have the greatest potential to survive relatively unscathed due to its geothermal and hydroelectric energy, abundant agricultural land, and low human population density. (The Guardian)

  • The United States government has sold the only copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin to an anonymous buyer. The price of the sale was also kept confidential. The album was previously owned by Martin Shkreli, the infamous "Pharma Bro" who raised the price of a life-saving drug by 5,000% and was later convicted of securities fraud and sentenced to seven years in prison. (NPR)

  • Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked by the Vatican in 2019 over sex abuse allegations, is now facing criminal charges in Massachusetts for alleged sex abuse of a minor nearly 50 years ago, according to a court filing. (CNN)

  • Sometimes media cracks me up. The other night I made a quick comment on Twitter that sparked an argument between actor Ben Stiller and Franklin Leonard, founder of The Blacklist. Next thing I knew, I had thousands of notifications and the whole debate—about the degree to which Hollywood is governed by nepotism instead of meritocracy (it is, but so are many other industries)—wound up the subject of a segment on The View, and a full article in Variety. (Yahoo News, Twitter)

  • This is what happens when a very good writer (Jack Thomas) learns he has only months to live. An excerpt:

    “As death draws near, I feel the same uncomfortable transition I experienced when I was a teenager at Brantwood Camp in Peterborough, New Hampshire, packing up to go home after a grand summer. I’m not sure what awaits me when I get home, but this has certainly been an exciting experience. I had a loving family. I had a great job at the newspaper. I met fascinating people, and I saw myriad worldwide wonders. It’s been full of fun and laughter, too, a really good time. I just wish I could stay a little longer.” (Boston Globe Magazine, $?)

(On that last link, let me know if you hit a paywall. I think visitors get a handful of free stories. If not, I apologize; I might reach out in that case and ask for permission to reprint. Thanks.)


Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Pixabay. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.