When Simone Biles strode into 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 easy-going, Biles appeared sternly serious and maybe even troubled.
That expression only deepened after she landed her vault in the first round. Intending to do a two and a half twisting vault, Biles lost her bearings in midair and only managed one and a half twists. The low difficulty and execution scores only sealed the deal. “That score unfortunately would go up like that for the team, and I felt I robbed them of a couple of tenths when they could have been higher in the rankings,” she said. “It was definitely not my best work.”
Biles then talked to the team trainer and her coach, Cecile Landi, and told them the team would have to go on without her. “I was not going to cost the team a medal,” she said. “I needed to call it. They said, if Simone says this, we need to take it seriously.”
“Calling it” meant withdrawing from the team final. As millions of viewers around the world, and gaggle of reporters in the arena were left wondering—was she injured? Was she feeling sick? What many didn’t really consider—or considered and dismissed quickly—was that Biles simply wasn’t feeling mentally fit to compete.
On Wednesday, USA Gymnastics announced that Biles would withdraw from the individual all-around competition, as well, “in order to focus on her mental health.” Biles qualified for all four individual event finals—scheduled for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday—and USAG said she would be evaluated daily to determine whether she will compete in those.
Biles’ decision comes as athletes, particularly since Michael Phelps revealed his struggle with depression, have come forward about their experiences with anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. Just a little over a month ago, Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open after citing the hurtful effect of press conferences on her mental health, and her struggles with depression. And this year, for the first time at this Olympics, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) sent a group of mental health professionals for the first time to accompany the team in Tokyo. The greatest gymnast of all time prioritizing her mental health on the biggest stage in sports—the Olympic Games themselves—could mark a new era of mental health awareness among athletes.
Read more: How Olympians Are Fighting to Put Athletes’ Mental Health First
There were hints that the pressure was building for Biles, who has been the face of these troubled Olympics, and its potential savior as the leader of Team USA who was expected to repeat gold in the team event and defend her all-around title. During the Olympic Trials in June, the normally precise and consistent Biles made a string of uncharacteristic errors on the second day of competition, which appeared to have spilled over to the qualification round in Tokyo, which determines which eight teams will move on to the team event, and which athletes will compete in the all-around competition and the event finals. Biles stepped far out of bounds during the floor routine and during vault. Afterward, she wrote on social media that “I truly feel do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hhahaha! The Olympics is [sic] no joke!”
Biles has worked with a therapist since she 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, which she and her fellow survivors feel failed to protect them and take accountability for the Nassar scandal.
The process for competing at these Olympics in particular also added an unprecedented level of complexity, confusion and anxiety. Along with the stress of performing under the expectations of the world, athletes are also competing in Tokyo under the shadow of COVID-19, which means daily testing, restricted movements and constant reminders of an invisible enemy that could strike at any time and wipe away years of training by eliminating you from competing. Days after arriving in Japan, an alternate on the women’s gymnastics team tested positive, and she and a close contact are in isolation. While Biles didn’t mention the experience, it likely shook the entire team since they shared training facilities, used the same equipment, and lived in the same “bubble.”
Read more: Naomi Osaka: ‘It’s O.K. to Not Be O.K.’
Biles alluded to the “long year” when noting the variables that went into her decision to withdraw. But ultimately, she took the proactive step of recognizing, and addressing a concern before it spiraled out of control. Biles said she had never felt as unsettled about a competition as she did before the team final, and earlier in the day was shaking and unable to nap like she normally does before a big meet. Losing her bearings in a vault she has performed hundreds, if not thousands of times, was a red flag for her. And Biles knows better than anyone that her mind and body simply weren’t in sync. “I felt the girls needed to do the rest of the competition without me,” she said. “I needed to let the girls do it and focus on myself.”
For the remainder of the event, Biles was team’s lead cheerleader, clapping and jumping up and down with every successful routine. She knew it was the right decision for her, but she also knew it came at a price—her teammates had to navigate the 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 emotional when we found out that she wasn’t going to continue. We went out there and did what we had to do, and I’m very proud we were able to do that. At the end of the day, this medal is definitely for her. Because if it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be where we are right now. We wouldn’t be Olympic silver medalists.”
Recognizing when you’re mentally not in the right state to compete is a key part of athletes being more aware of not just their body but their mind as well. And having a support team of coaches and teammates who recognize the importance of that is critical to ensuring that small mental struggles don’t balloon into larger ones that can be more debilitating. Biles has said Landi and her husband Laurent Landi have been supportive of understanding when she needs mental breaks and how to manage her stress; Cecile spoke to officials to let them know of Biles’ decision to withdraw.
While many organizations like the USOPC have provided mental health resources for athletes in the past, the vast majority of that has been in the form of help with improving their performance on the field. This year, the USOPC hired a director of mental health, Jessica Bartley, to more specifically address mental well being, and she and her team plan to assess all athletes on 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 that any athlete can turn 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 to which they can refer athletes if they do need help in 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 she put the team in jeopardy by deciding to withdraw 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 is “saving” herself for the all-around competition and the glory that comes with that title.
And she did put herself first, but for all the right reasons. That’s the lesson that not just elite athletes, but everyone, should learn from Biles’ choice, as shocking as it was. But that’s something that Biles, who has punched through all kinds of barriers with the physical feats she’s achieved, is now likely to do for biases and stigma against mental health issues as well.
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