Simone Biles is proving once and for all this week why she’s the greatest of all time—by deciding that not even an Olympic gold medal is more important than her mental health.
The 24-year-old shocked the world Tuesday when she abruptly withdrew from the Olympic team final—not because of injury, but because she wasn’t in a good “headspace.”
After admitting to her 5.4 million Instagram followers Sunday that she felt like she had the “weight of the world on [her] shoulders,” Biles went into the first rotation of the team finals on Tuesday feeling “off.”
She was attempting an advanced vault move which involves a back handspring with two-and-a-half twists in the air before landing. It’s a skill that Biles has executed flawlessly in previous competition, but fumbled through, uncharacteristically Tuesday.
“After the performance that I did, I didn’t want to go into any of the other events second guessing myself,” Biles later told reporters. “So I thought it was better if I took a step back and let these girls go out there and do the job and they did just that.”
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Biles hugged her teammates, exited the floor with a team trainer, and later returned to cheer on her team from the sideline, wearing a white team warmup suit. In an unprecedented move at an unprecedented Olympic Games, Simone Biles made the courageous decision to remove herself from the competition–and it was one she was at peace with.
The decision, which resulted in the U.S. taking silver in the team event, has been met with widespread criticism and praise. But more importantly, it’s shining a light on the importance of prioritizing mental health from the world’s stage.
“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human, too,” Biles said. “So, we have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
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Mental Health Taking a Front Row Seat in Sports
Biles’ decision to prioritize her mental health comes just two months after another world champion, tennis great Naomi Osaka, announced she would skip the mandatory press conferences at the French Open.
Her reason? Social anxiety.
The decision resulted in a $15,000 fine from the French Tennis Federation, and threats of expulsion from the tournament altogether.
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“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she wrote. “Anyone that knows me knows that I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”
The four-time grand slam champion went on to admit that she suffers from “huge waves of anxiety” before she speaks to the world’s media—the driving factor in her decision to not speak with the press.
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) May 31, 2021
Rather than honing in on the opportunity to celebrate and embrace what it means to be a healthy athlete, the FFT fell very, very short. Osaka, like Biles, decided that no championship or title was worth more than her mental health. She was reprimanded and disciplined for choosing what was right for her over what the world wanted from her.
It’s a lesson that has resonated with so many, particularly throughout the pandemic and these unprecedented times. People far and wide are understanding now, more than ever before, the need for our minds to be healthy.
And whether it’s the everyday pressures of being a world class athlete, or the everyday pressures of balancing a job, kids, relationships, and LIFE, 2021 is a year of normalizing mental health—on the world stage and beyond.
The World of Sports Stands With Simone Biles
In the aftermath of Simone Biles’ exit from the competition Tuesday, two fellow and former Olympians have weighed in on her decision, commending her for listening to her body, and setting an important example for both athletes and viewers at home.
Five-time Olympic medal gymnast Nastia Liukin said Biles “did the right thing” when deciding to exit the women’s team final.
“She did the right thing. She really wanted to focus on the team,” Liukin told NBC’s Mike Tirico. “And I think when you actually take a look at what happened on that vault — she got lost. And any gymnast knows — we call it the ‘twisties’ — and basically she was supposed to do another whole rotation and got completely lost in the air. It’s a mental error, essentially, that every single gymnast goes through.”
Liukin said the “twisties,” a seemingly normal mental block, is universally known among gymnasts, who are also aware of its potential to lead to injury.
“If you are not 100% sure of yourself, and where you are in the air, it can be very dangerous,” she said.
Another GOAT, and the most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, says he hopes Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the competition is “an eye-opening experience.”
When asked about his reaction to Biles’ decision, Phelps took a deep breath and a long pause before simply saying, “the Olympics is overwhelming.”
He echoed Biles’ feeling of carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, and living up to other peoples’ expectations. He emphasized the need for athletes to have a healthy, safe person that they can trust to essentially hold up their arms.
“If you look at it, mental health over the last eighteen months is something that people are talking about,” Phelps said, adding that we all need to ask for help sometimes.
“I didn’t want to be in the sport anymore…I didn’t want to be alive anymore,” he previously shared, recounting his “all-time low,” which came after the London Games. Ultimately, Phelps says, “I am extremely thankful that I did not take my life.”
In response to Biles’ decision on Tuesday, Phelps says he hopes this is an opportunity for the United States as a whole to “jump on board,” and even “blow this [mental health] thing wide open.”
“When I started on this journey five years ago, I knew it was big,” Phelps says of the need to support people’s mental health. “Five years into it now, it’s even bigger than I can comprehend. So this is something that’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of hard work, and people that are willing to help.”
A Voice for Change, An Advocate Athlete.
She’s the most decorated gymnast in the world with five Olympic medals, four of which are gold. She has four gymnastic skills bearing her name, and she makes flipping through the air in projectile motion look like a walk in the park. And while Simone Biles may not have added to her medal count or defended the U.S. team’s championship title in Tokyo, this 4 foot 8 inch powerhouse made history in more ways than one.
She came to Tokyo to be a voice for change.
As the only survivor of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse to compete in these Olympics, “I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen,” Biles told NBC’s Hoda Kotb this year.
“I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side. But since I’m still here, and I have quite a social media presence and platform, they have to do something.”
While her quest to hold Team USA Gymnastics accountable for the crimes of Larry Nassar has not lessened, Biles will be remembered at the Tokyo Games for championing mental health like never before. She’s changing the game in the best possible way. A GOAT if there’s ever been one, and a role model we can get behind.