Team USA’s Simone Biles watches during the women’s team final on Day 4 of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at Ariake Gymnastics Center on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Credit – Laurence Griffiths – Getty Images
When Simone Biles entered the Ariac Gymnastics Center for the women’s gymnastics team competition on July 27, the expression on her confront said it all. Usually all smiles and silent, Biles looked very grave and perhaps agitated.
This expression only deepened following she landed her vault in the first round. Intending to do a double-and-a-half vault, Biles lost her bearings in mid-air and only managed to flip one and a half times. The low difficulty and execution results led to the completion of the deal. “This score is unfortunately going to go up like that for the team, and I felt like I robbed them of ten tenths when they could have been higher in the rankings,” she said. “I definitely wasn’t the best at my job.”
Biles then spoke to the team’s coach and teacher, Cecil Landy, and told them the team would have to persevere without her. “I wouldn’t have cost the team a medal,” she said. “I needed to call him. They said, If Simon says this, we should take it seriously.”
“Summoned” means withdrawal from the team final. While millions of viewers around the world, and a big number of reporters in the arena were wondering – was she injured? Was she feeling ill? What many didn’t really think about – or quickly thought and dismissed – was that Biles simply didn’t feel mentally fit to compete.
Biles’ decision comes because athletes, especially since Michael Phelps revealed his struggle with depression, have come forward about their experiences with anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. A little over a month ago, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open following citing the harmful effect of press conferences on her mental health, and her suffering from depression. And this year, for the first time at the Olympics, the USOPC sent a group of first-time mental health professionals to accompany the team in Tokyo. The greatest gymnast of all time who prioritizes her mental health over the biggest stage in the sport – the Olympics themselves – could mark a unused era of mental health awareness among athletes.
There were hints that pressure was building on Biles, who was the confront of this tumultuous Olympics, and her potential savior as captain of Team USA who was expected to repeat gold in the team event and protect her overall title. During the Olympic Trials in June, Biles’ usually meticulous and consistent team made a series of uncharacteristic mistakes on the second day of competition, which appeared to extend into the qualification round in Tokyo, which sure which eight teams would move to the event team, the athletes who would compete in the all-around competition and finals the event. The Bills ran out of bounds during floor routines and during the basement. After that, she wrote on social media “I really feel like I feel the weight of the world on my shoulder sometimes. I know I just shrug it off and make it look like the stress doesn’t affect me but sometimes it’s firm hahahahaha! Olympics [sic] no kidding!”
Biles has worked with a therapist since she came forward in 2018 as a survivor of sexual assault at the hands of previous National Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, she said the postponement of the Games had a vast impact on her as well, as it meant not only another year of training, but another year of working with USA Gymnastics, which she and her fellow survivors feel failed to protect. And take responsibility for the Nassar scandal.
The process of competing in these Olympic Games in particular has added an unprecedented level of complexity, confusion, and anxiety. Besides the pressures of performing under world expectations, athletes are also competing in Tokyo under the shadow of COVID-19, which means daily testing, restricted movements and constant reminders of an invisible rival that can strike at any time and wipe away. Years of training preserve you out of the competition. Days following arriving in Japan, a surrogate test result on the women’s gymnastics team came back positive, and she and one of her members were in isolation. While Biles didn’t mention the experience, it likely shook the entire team because they shared training facilities, used the alike equipment, and lived in the alike “bubble.”
Biles alluded to the “lengthy year” when noting the variables that went into her decision to withdraw. But she eventually took the proactive step of recognizing and treating anxiety prior it got out of control. Biles said she’s never felt as dangerous about the competition as she did prior the team’s final, and earlier in the day she was shivering and unable to nap as she normally does prior a big meet. Losing her directions in a vault that she had performed hundreds, if not thousands of times, was a red flag for her. Biles knew better than anyone that her mind and body were out of sync. “I felt like the girls needed to do the rest of the competition without me,” she said. “I needed to let the girls do that and focus on myself.”
During the remainder of the event, Biles was the team’s main cheerleader, clapping and jumping up and down with each thriving routine. She knew it was the right decision for her, but she also knew it had a price – her teammates had to navigate the changes in the second-final squad.
“It was definitely something unexpected,” said Chils, who trains with Biles in Spring, Texas, and is a close comrade of hers. “We were emotional when we found out it wasn’t going to final. We went out there and did what we had to do, and I’m so elated we were competent to do it. At the end of the day, this medal is definitely hers. Because if it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be where we are right now. We will not be the Olympic silver medalists.”
Realizing that you are not in the right state to compete mentally is an essential part of being more aware of not only their bodies but their minds as well. Having a support team of coaches and colleagues who understand the importance of this is critical to ensuring that little mental struggles do not swell into larger ones that can be more vulnerable. Biles said Landy and her husband, Lauren Landy, were supportive of understanding when she needed psychological breaks and how to manage her stress. Cecile spoke to officials to inform them of Biles’ decision to cease.
While many organizations such as the USOPC have provided mental health resources to athletes in the former, the vast majority of them have been in the form of assistance in improving their performance in the field. This year, the USOPC has appointed director of mental health, Jessica Bartley, to address mental health more specifically, and she and her team plan to assess all athletes for mental health issues on a routine basis so they can see red flags as they arise. And manage it quickly and appropriately. The IOC also created a mental health guide that it made available to athletes and their support staff for the first time during these Games, and also plans to create a global registry of culturally pertinent mental health professionals that any athlete can refer to.
Many athletes at this elite level like Biles already work with mental health professionals, but the USOPC is also building a registry of psychologists and psychiatrists that they can refer athletes to if they need aid communicating with the right professionals.
For Biles, the journey doesn’t end here. Critics accustomed to athletes sacrificing their well-being for the sake of a medal may say she endangered the team by her final-minute decision to withdraw. Or she was only protecting herself from embarrassment or ridicule if she didn’t live up to the lofty standards you expect of her and everyone else. Or it “saves” itself for the all-out competition and glory that comes with that title.
It has put itself first, but for all the right reasons. This is the lesson that not only the elite athletes, but everyone else, must learn from Biles’ choice, as shocking as it was. But it’s something that Biles, who has broken through all kinds of barriers with her physical feats, is now more likely to do to prejudice and stigmatize against mental health issues as well.
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