I watched the Rio Olympics with my two teenage daughters. It was the U.S. women athletes who would come to dominate the Games, winning 27 golds and 61 total medals -- six more than the men's overall tally. This was edifying, especially for my girls, who found themselves unexpectedly stirred and rooting for women whose excellence and achievement were not up for debate-women whose dedication, fortitude and will broke through the media clutter, leveled false gods and showed us all what greatness can and should look like.
And then there was Simone Biles.
Biles, 19, came into the Olympics not simply a favorite but a legend, her exceptionalism as rousing as a drum line, an athlete soaring so far above her peers she may as well have been eyeing them from space. The Nadia Comaneci narrative-that of the adorable imp who stunned the world with unprecedented perfection-wasn't for her.
It was assumed that Biles would be perfect, her superiority a given. Her mind-bending world championship triumphs had already offered a preview of coming dominance: Biles the proverbial gun at the knife fight. And this, arguably, is a much harder burden to bear.
There is the risk of potential humiliation, of letting people down, of not being the gilded, galloping unicorn you've been advertised to be. A favorite is not allowed to falter. A lock can never be a surprise. Worse, confidence can read as smugness, inviting schadenfreude. America is nothing if not invested in the narrative of the underdog.
Biles has never been the underdog in the gym. She has had agonizing struggles over the years, notably entering foster care after her birth mother lost the ability to care for her and her sister because of drug addiction. Biles, whose grandparents became her parents when she was 6, took pains to busy herself with things she could control, like learning how to do back handsprings in her yard. When the role life handed her was too limiting, Biles rewrote the script and gave herself better lines.
So it was with her gymnastic career, in which she quickly conquered every skill and maneuver on offer. And still she kept working, doing the hard math.
She learned how a slight feint to the right midair would rotate her body like a pinwheel in the wind. She calculated how many steps it took to launch her body twice her height above the mat. She embraced dismounts no one else dared try. Then she added flair. Joyful punctuation-a shimmy, a leap, a swivel of the hip-showmanship married to excellence that delighted all fortunate enough to see her compete.
There are others who have inhabited their significance thus, the rare few who possessed enough confidence to play, even as they fought to be the best in the world. Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Jim Thorpe. Muhammad Ali. Artists, like Biles, who left us gasping and misty-eyed at their performances even though we already knew the ending. Magicians who mastered every trick, then invented new ones.
Such was the case with Biles in Rio, where she cemented her status in the athletic firmament with every stuck landing, a physical planting of the flag on a planet all her own. My girls watched her, applauding victory after victory, never tiring of her virtuosity, Biles' pre-eminence a comfort of sorts, like that of a superhero coming to save the day. She bobbled once on the beam, a steadying hand that let us know she was, in fact, human, but that second no more defined her Olympic showing than a stray thread on a couture suit.
Here was a woman who knew, to the millimeter, how far she had to run. Here was a woman who bent physics to her will. Here was a woman who found balance in the air. Here was a woman unafraid of a blind landing. Here was a woman who wouldn't choke, wouldn't let us down, a woman we could trust to take care of business.
Here was a woman who also happened, just by her very existence, to be forcing every coming generation to do better. Because she did better. (A lot better.) And with that mandate came the comfort of knowing better could still be done, that our future could be as bright and certain as we dared allow.