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Culture

Simone Biles: The Sports World’s Next Mental Health Advocate

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Going into the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer, Simone Biles was poised to break multiple records with her expected outstanding performances. Biles often referred to as the “Greatest of All Time,” came into the competition with the weight of the world perched on her shoulders and expectations ten stories high to churn out one gold medal performance after another as the most decorated female gymnast of all time.

The pressure put on the young athlete from the world, especially the United States, ultimately proved to be a detriment to her performance. In the end, Biles still came out triumphant, joining the fight alongside young athletes like Naomi Osaka to bring mental health awareness to the world’s largest athletic stage.

Stepping Up at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Fans speculated that Biles and USA Gymnastics had this year’s Olympics in the bag. Biles bravely made the decision to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which were postponed from last year due to the global shift) not to win more medals, but to use her platform and spotlight to continue to push for change following the harrowing sexual abuse scandal involving USA Gymnastics’ former doctor, Larry Nassar. As the only survivor of Larry Nassar’s abuse on the team, she has the ability, power, and voice to continue to hold USAG accountable. 

Coming out of the 2016 Olympics, USAG was favored to dominate, led by none other than Biles as the face of the team. Everything seemed business as usual until July 27, when news that Biles was withdrawing from the team finals in Tokyo. Biles dropped out after stumbling her landing in her first rotation on the vault before walking off of the floor with her training. The next day, it was announced that she had also withdrawn from the individual all-around final.

That would not be the last of withdrawn events for the decorated athlete. Throughout the course of a week, Biles dropped out of some of her strongest events, including the floor, vault, and uneven bars finals, citing a case of the “twisties,” which are a type of mental block where an athlete loses a sense of their spatial awareness, which can cause serious injury.

Though Biles did not participate in much of the Olympics, she came back strong at the very end to churn out a medal in the balance beam final. She scored a bronze medal for her performance, but it held more weight than just a third-place prize.

Global Support

Biles had the unwavering support of not only fans of the sport, but from her fellow teammates and athletes who understand the struggle one can face in that type of high-stress situation. Her tough decision was met with love from USAG, understanding fully that her health–both physical and mental–comes first. Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles, and MyKayla Skinner all sent their love and support to their teammate after news broke, paying homage to her athlete prowess and unparalleled accomplishments in the sport.

Former Olympic gymnast Nastia Liukin even penned a note thanking Biles for her bravery on the world’s biggest stage for sports, writing in part, “Thank you for showing the depth of who you are beyond an athlete as a leader, role model, mental health warrior, and person. Thank you for epitomizing what the next generation of role models should be.”

“No one will be remembered for any single routine, competition, or medal,” she added. “You, however, will undeniably be remembered by many for the compassion and bravery shown here in Tokyo. You came here as a gymnast, and you’re leaving as a hero.”

Putting Your Health First

After her decision to withdraw from some events, fans rallied behind the gymnast, pointing out that Biles is a person; she is not a medal-winning robot. She has ups and downs, feelings and emotions, and hardships just as any other person does. In fact, at times, they’re heightened due to the massive global stage that she exists on. The gymnast took the time to address her decision to withdraw from certain events during the Olympic Games, getting candid about the emotions leading up to her tremendous decision.

“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human too,” she told The Associated Press. “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

She admitted that she took a page out of Osaka’s book when approaching this massive decision, gaining inspiration from her fellow young athlete who made a point at putting her mental health first this year over the game of tennis.

“Put mental health first, 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,” Biles said. “So it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor that you really are, rather than just battle through it.”

Stress is inevitable in any of life’s situations, especially during a global sporting event that brings hundreds of countries together. Add in a global shift with strict protocol adjustments and periods of long isolation and it becomes a recipe for disaster.

The impact the COVID-19 guidelines had was admittedly stressful, according to Biles, especially after a postponement of one year and a year and a half of coping with the ongoing global shift and months upon months of social justice initiatives.

“It’s been a long week. It’s been a long Olympic process. It’s been a long year,” she said. “So just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out. We should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.”

Photo Credit: Simone Biles Instagram 

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