American Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles is airborne. After the shortest sprint, she executes two flips and a twist off the ground, then lands firmly on her feet, in what everyone calls “The Biles.” For the 19-yearold American gymnast, the signature move is a metaphor for her life. She was born in Columbus, Ohio, to a mother who took drugs and was arrested for a string of robberies. Her biological father was a mystery. When she and three siblings were placed in foster care, their maternal grandfather and stepgrandmother, Ron and Nellie Cayetano Biles of Texas, took them. After a failed return to their mother, the children were placed for adoption.
An aunt brought up the older children.
Simone and her younger sister, Adria, were adopted by their grandparents.
According to the Daily Mail, Mrs. Biles was working full time as a nurse, had two teenage children, and nearly walked out because of the stress of caring for threeyear- old Simone and a toddler. But in her family’s home in Belize, from which she immigrated, needy cousins were often sheltered. Family loyalty prevailed.
When Simone was six, her daycare center happened to take a field trip to a Banon Gymnastix, a large Houston sports studio. A coach noticed the diminutive visitor successfully parroting complicated moves of the advanced students. The head coach sent home a note with Biles inviting her to lessons. That coach was Aimee Borman, a former gymnast from Chicago who claims she’d moved to Texas “on a whim.” She has been coaching Biles for the last 13 years, and is today the senior coach of the gold-winning US Olympic Team.
The rest, as they say, is history – the story of a stretched family, doing its best to support Biles, even switching to home schooling so she had more practice hours.
What if the daycare center had visited the zoo that day? Or on the way home from the daycare center, little Simone lost the note? Her overwhelmed stepmother might also have deemed the project too much trouble. Her talent might have been squandered.
Success in sports requires discipline, determination, confidence, and the right coach.
I’VE BEEN discussing the ability of certain persons to move far beyond their difficult circumstances with Dalia Itzik, whom I interviewed recently at the Hadassah National Convention in Atlanta. Itzik is the only Israeli woman to serve as speaker of the Knesset and – for an interim period – president of Israel. She was elected six times as a Knesset member, served as minister of environment, industry and trade, and of communications. Others female MK’s hailed from famous families: Yael Dayan, Dalia Rabin, Yuli Tamir. But no silver spoons in Itzik’s background.
Her background isn’t as difficult as Biles’s, but Itzik’s father was an alcoholic, her mother illiterate. Bringing up eight children in a 30-square-meter apartment in a tough neighborhood of Jerusalem, her mother didn’t want to leave them, so she took in welfare children to cover the meager food budget. She was gratified that the State deemed her a good enough mother to take in the additional children.
At six, Dalia began working as a mother’s helper in an affluent home, washing dishes and mopping floors after school.
She gave the money to her mother.
Says Itzik, “Maybe I was eight or nine when I was walking home on a cold and rainy Jerusalem night. My feet were wet, and I was soaked through. I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to live my life like this.’”
SHE NURTURED that determination, understanding that she’d have to forge her own path to success. “My mother never complained, so we learned not to waste time and energy complaining,” says Itzik.
She took advantage of a government initiative for children in poor neighborhoods to attend the Evelina de Rothschild school.
Among classmates who took piano lessons and went on vacations, Itzik developed her personal voice. Classmates remember her speaking out on social issues.
Her mother blocked her going to the army, a lifelong regret. Instead, she got an early start in education, and rose to leadership in the vast Teachers’ Union. Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek recruited her to politics. She had the guts to hold out for a deputy mayor spot, recognizing that the legendary mayor respected strength. She married young, finding love and friendship with Danny Itzik, an engineer. They have three children. Still happily married, she doesn’t romanticize the struggle to bring up a family when you have ambitions of your own.
“Balancing family and career is always a challenge,” says Itzik. “Listen to women in the Knesset on the phone: “Heat up the soup, honey. Pick up the children from soccer.” Others are always implying that you are neglecting your children, that your house is probably a mess, that you never have real meals. You have to close your ears to pettiness and remind yourself that you are doing something important. You need to set a lofty goal, follow your heart and work your hardest to be best. You can’t live in a world full of excuses. And it helps to live in a great country, where it’s possible to achieve your dreams despite the odds.”
Dreams that can be airborne.The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel.
She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.