When Simone Biles entered the Ariake Gymnastics Center for the women’s gymnastics team competition on July 27, the expression on her face said it all. Normally all smiles and carefree, Biles seemed severely serious and perhaps even concerned.
That expression only deepened after he landed his jump in the first round. Intending to do a two-and-a-half-turn vault, Biles lost his way in midair and only managed a one-and-a-half lap. Low difficulty and execution scores only sealed the deal. “Sadly, that score would increase like this for the team, and I felt like I stole a couple of tenths from them when they could have been higher up in the rankings,” he said. “It was definitely not my best work.”
Later, Biles spoke with the team’s coach and her coach, Cecile Landi, and told them that the team would have to continue without her. “It wasn’t going to cost the team a medal,” he said. “I needed to call him. They said if Simone says this, we should take it seriously. “
To “call him” meant to withdraw from the team final. While millions of viewers from around the world and a group of reporters in the arena were left wondering: was she hurt? Was she feeling sick? What many did not really consider, or quickly considered and dismissed, was that Biles simply did not feel mentally fit to compete.
On Wednesday, USA Gymnastics announced that Biles would also withdraw from individual competition, “to focus on his mental health.” Biles qualified for the four individual event finals, scheduled for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and USAG said they would evaluate her daily to determine if she will compete in them.
Biles’ decision comes as athletes, especially since Michael Phelps revealed his struggle with depression, have expressed their experiences with anxiety, depression and other mental health problems. Just over a month ago, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open after citing the damaging effect of press conferences on her mental health and her struggle with depression. And this year, for the first time at these Olympics, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) sent a group of mental health professionals to accompany the team in Tokyo for the first time. The greatest gymnast of all time by prioritizing her mental health on the biggest arena in sports, the Olympics themselves, could usher in a new era of mental health awareness among athletes.
Read more: How Olympians Struggle to Prioritize Athletes’ Mental Health
There were indications that the pressure was mounting for Biles, who has been the face of these troubled Olympics, and his potential savior as the leader of Team USA, who was expected to repeat the gold in the team event and defend. its full title. During the Olympic trials in June, the normally accurate and consistent Biles made a series of unusual mistakes on the second day of competition, which appeared to have extended to the qualifying round in Tokyo, which determines which eight teams will advance to the squad. event, and which athletes will compete in the general competition and event finals. Biles went out of bounds during the floor routine and during the jump. Later, he wrote on social media that “I really feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I reject it and make it look like the pressure doesn’t affect me, but damn, it’s hard sometimes hahahaha! The Olympic Games are [sic] it is not a joke!”
Biles has worked with a therapist since he came forward in 2018 as a survivor of sexual abuse by former national gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Before the Tokyo Olympics, she said that the postponement of the Games also weighed heavily on her, as it meant not only another year of training, but also another year of working with USA Gymnastics, that she and her fellow survivors feel they didn’t. protected. and take responsibility for the Nassar scandal.
The process to compete in these particular Olympics also added an unprecedented level of complexity, confusion and anxiety. Along with the stress of performing under the world’s expectations, athletes also compete in Tokyo under the shadow of COVID-19, which means daily tests, restricted movements, and constant reminders of an invisible enemy that could strike at any moment and annihilate. years of training eliminating you from the competition. Days after arriving in Japan, a substitute for the women’s gymnastics team tested positive, and she and a close contact are in isolation. While Biles did not mention the experience, it probably shook the entire team as they shared training facilities, wore the same equipment, and lived in the same “bubble.”
Read more: Naomi Osaka: ‘It’s okay not to be okay’
Biles alluded to the “long year” by pointing out the variables that influenced his decision to retire. But ultimately, you took the proactive step of acknowledging and addressing a concern before it got out of hand. Biles said that she had never felt so restless about a competition as before the team final, and earlier in the day she was shaking and couldn’t nap like she normally does before a big match. Losing her way in a vault that she has performed hundreds, if not thousands of times, was a red flag for her. And Biles knows better than anyone that his mind and body just weren’t in sync. “I felt like the girls needed to do the rest of the competition without me,” he said. “I needed to let the girls do it and focus on me.”
For the remainder of the event, Biles was the main cheerleader for the team, clapping and jumping with each successful routine. She knew it was the right decision for her, but she also knew it had a price: her teammates had to navigate last-second lineup changes.
“It was definitely something unexpected,” said Chiles, who trains with Biles in Spring, Texas, and is close friends with her. “We were excited when we found out that she was not going to continue. We went out and did what we had to do, and I’m so proud that we did it. At the end of the day, this medal is definitely for her. Because if it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t be where we are now. We would not be Olympic silver medalists. “
Recognizing when you are mentally not in the right state to compete is a key part of making athletes more aware of not only their body, but also their mind. And having a supportive team of coaches and teammates who recognize the importance of that is critical to ensuring that little mental struggles don’t escalate into big ones that can be more debilitating. Biles has said that Landi and her husband Laurent Landi have been supportive of understanding when she needs mental breaks and how to manage her stress; Cecile spoke with officials to inform them of Biles’ decision to retire.
While many organizations like the USOPC have provided mental health resources for athletes in the past, the vast majority of them have been in the form of helping them improve their performance on the field. This year, the USOPC hired a director of mental health, Jessica Bartley, to more specifically address mental wellness, and she and her team plan to screen all athletes for mental health issues on a regular basis so they can see red flags. when they arise. and manage them quickly and appropriately. The International Olympic Committee also created a mental health playbook 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 relevant mental health professionals to which any athlete can attend.
Many athletes at this elite level like Biles already work with mental health professionals, but the USOPC is also creating a registry of psychologists and psychiatrists that they can refer athletes to if they need help connecting with the right professionals.
For Biles, the journey doesn’t end here. Critics used to athletes sacrificing their well-being for a medal may say that she put the team in jeopardy by deciding to retire at the last minute. Or that she was only protecting herself from embarrassment or ridicule if she didn’t perform to the high standards that she and everyone else expect of her. Or that she’s “saving” herself for general competition and the glory that comes with that title.
And she put herself first, but for the right reasons. That’s the lesson that not just elite athletes, but everyone, should learn from Biles’ choice, shocking as it was. But that’s something that Biles, who has overcome all kinds of barriers with the physical feats he has accomplished, now probably does as well because of prejudice and stigma against mental health issues.
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