Simone Biles can easily be recognized as one of the most talented gymnasts in the world, holding 32 medals from combined Olympics and World Championships. Biles has made history as the first woman to ever attempt a Yurchenko double pike and successfully land it, and she also made history as the first Black woman to win five top gymnastics titles. The Tokyo Olympics this past summer served as Biles’s second Olympic experience. However, this summer, Biles courageously stepped back from the Olympic stage to focus on her mental health.
Biles’s vault had been the event that caused her to reevaluate her position in the sport and pay more attention to her mental health. The New York Times reported that Biles described feeling lost in the air and did not know where her body was in relation to the ground. Biles told her coach that she felt she was not in the right headspace, and she felt that she should take a step back to protect her mental and physical health and to avoid any chances of interfering with her team’s chance of success. Biles’s withdrawal from the Olympic team event was met with extreme support by athletes, fans and teammates.
At the same time, it was also met with judgement by many other Americans. Many people on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter accused Biles of using mental health as an excuse to quit and run away from the pressure. However, this is very far from true.
Along with the intense mental block, it is important to note that Biles was one of the only remaining Olympic competitors this year who was a victim of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse. Nassar served as a doctor for many elite gymnasts and most Olympic gymnasts, and in 2016, was accused of sexual misconduct and assault on more than 500 young girls. In addition to Biles, many famous Olympic gymnasts were victims, including Aly Raisman, Kayla Ross, Gabby Douglas and Jordyn Wieber. The Nassar assaults were not taken as seriously as expected by the USAG and the U.S Olympic Committee and were swept under the rug to protect their reputation. Nassar was recently sentenced to 40-175 years in prison, and although justice may be served, hundreds of gymnasts were left scarred from their experiences. Along with sexual assault, many USAG and Olympic coaches were also accused of emotionally and psychologically abusing gymnasts by bodyshaming them and coercing them to perform while injured.
During a series of NPR interviews, Biles explained her decision to withdraw from the Olympic team events due to mental health reasons. She told NPR reporters that Olympic Tennis player Naomi Osaka had inspired her to take a step back when she withdrew from Wimbledon for mental health reasons.
“I say put mental health first,” Biles said. “Because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. So it’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it.”
Biles serves as a role model to me and to the entire community of young female gymnasts. I have always admired Biles for her strength and determination throughout her journey as a gymnast, but I have gained immense respect for her as she sets an example of prioritizing mental health.
As a former USAG gymnast myself, I know just how hostile and unhealthy the atmosphere can be for young female gymnasts, as we are often forced to ignore our mental blocks or mental health to prioritize our performance. I can only imagine how much worse the environment becomes as you reach the Olympic level. It is important to remember that despite extreme talent and fame, Olympic athletes and celebrities still face common mental challenges that should be taken seriously.