Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast of all time, has chosen to not compete in Thursday’s individual all-around competition after withdrawing from the team finals for mental health reasons.
Biles, who already has four gymnastics moves named after her, withdrew herself from the team final earlier this week, admitting she didn’t want to jeopardize her team’s success or her own health for the sake of the Games. In an interview, she said felt like she had “the weight of the world on her shoulders” during the competition. She had spoken with her coach and a team doctor, telling them she was not in the right “headspace” to continue because she was afraid of injuring herself.
“I want to walk out of here, not be dragged out by a stretcher or something,” said after the final.
Biles, who already has won 24 world championship medals, has been outspoken about her mental health journey surrounding the competition for some time now. She spoke with Glamour magazine about how therapy has become a “safe space” for her over the last few years, and she’s been trying to find a healthy balance in life.
Biles, often heralded as the gymnast G.O.A.T. by fans, has more than proven herself to be an incredible and capable athlete. To compete on the world stage numerous times — and win — all before she can legally rent a car in the U.S. is impressive. She has shown the world that she can handle an absurd amount of pressure. But the question she is wrestling with, and one we should be asking ourselves, is should she have to handle the pressure?
Fans often praise Olympians for the hard work, perseverance and sacrifices made to achieve their goal. Their ability to push through injuries and insecurities is what makes them the best in our eyes. But the constant pressure to perform their best wears and tears on their bodies — physically, mentally and emotionally.
This pressure, coupled with the ongoing conversation about the US Gymnastics Association’s horrific handling of Larry Nassar’s abuse, all fell on Biles’ shoulders. Biles has spoken out more and more about USGA’s mishandling of the situation while still competing in a sport that has taken more from her than it’s given. And, for weeks leading up to the Games, media coverage focused heavily on Biles. She was featured in countless commercials, all focusing on her rightfully impressive athletic power.
It’s hard for us to grasp the amount of pressure Biles has been under for these Games. With her stunning performance in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and her continued success over the last five years, Biles entered the competition with all eyes on her. No one questioned her ability to win; the question was who would come in second.
So, when Biles announced that she was taking time to focus on her mental health, the world was shocked. No one wanted to see her dominate the Games more than me (I’ve been tweeting about it for weeks now) but above all, I want to see her happy and healthy. I love bragging about Biles as if she’s my own personal friend, but the truth is, she owes me nothing. She has successfully given it her all and doesn’t need to prove herself anymore.
Yet by stepping away, she’s actually proving that she is still ahead of everyone.
Biles, with all the eyes on her, has chosen to step away from the biggest competition in the world. One of the most well-known athletes has said that all the achievements, all the glory, all the fame isn’t worth it if she has to sacrifice herself. Her courage to be open and honest about her reasoning is why she is the best. She could have easily said she was stepping away for a physical injury — something fans wouldn’t think twice about. But by acknowledging that she needs to focus on her mental health, even if it costs her a medal, will hopefully encourage her fans that they should prioritize their mental health, too.
The conversation around mental health has been a journey, to put it lightly. After years of advocating for therapy and medication and just general positive support, mental health is finally being taken seriously (for the most part.) Roughly 42% of the US adult population has seen a therapist at least once in their life. But there are still people who believe we should simply “tough it out” and “push through the bad days.” There has to be a balance of finding ways to cope with difficulty and knowing when it’s right to step away from a situation altogether to seek help. And every time an athlete of Biles’ caliber makes the decision to prioritize their mental health over public expectations, it makes it just a little easier for the rest of us to do the same thing in our own lives.
Biles’ decision to step away has already been met with backlash from Twitter trolls and people who probably don’t have an athletic bone in their body. Their critiques are incredibly harmful and totally unnecessary. Thankfully, her true fans understand that she is continuing to show her strength and power by taking a step back. She’s proven herself more times than she’s needed to that she is, in fact, the greatest gymnast of all time. And by stepping away at the height of her career, maybe she can be the greatest mental health advocate of all time, too.