Simone Biles has broken gymnastics records with her skill and strength, but her decision on Tuesday to prioritize mental health over competition shows she’s still changing the sport from the inside out.
The US’s most decorated gymnast withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team final on the fourth day of the Tokyo Olympics due to concerns over her mental health. She may still compete in the individual rounds, but the 24-year-old told reporters that she chose to focus on her well-being rather than negatively affect her fellow gymnasts with a shaky performance in the team event.
“I knew that the girls would do an absolutely great job, and I didn’t want to risk the team a medal for my screwups, because they’ve worked way too hard for that. So I just decided that those girls need to go and do the rest of the competition,” Biles said.
Former Team USA gymnasts are now speaking out in support of her decision.
“I feel sick to my stomach. It’s just horrible,” Aly Raisman, Biles’ former teammate in the 2016 Olympics, said on the Today show in response to the pressure that can be placed on one person to perform as highly as Biles.
Leading up to the Tokyo games, Biles’ campaign for six possible gold medals dominated headlines. But just one day before she dropped out of the team final, she posted on Instagram that she felt the “weight of the world” on her shoulders.
“I know that all of these athletes dream of this moment for their whole entire lives, and I’m just completely devastated,” Raisman said of her teammate. “I am obviously so worried and just hoping that Simone is OK.”
Raisman added that she worried about the “mental impact” that the stress has had on Biles. “It’s just so much pressure,” she said.
She also said Biles has “pain” and “stress” like all humans do, despite the media’s attention toward her groundbreaking performances. Her decision brings to light the level of difficulty gymnasts face, Raisman said, which can be hard to remember when a competitor like Biles “makes it look so easy.”
In a sport where athletes are rewarded for their gravity-defying feats, Raisman said, spectators can dismiss how much mental strength is behind Biles’ demonstrations of her physical power.
“I think people forget sometimes we’re human,” she said.
Raisman was one of Biles’ teammates who joined her in speaking up about former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who was sentenced in 2018 for sexually abusing young athletes for decades.
The pain the gymnastics community shared amid the fallout of Nassar’s conviction had to have been “very rough” for Biles, according to Steven Ungerleider, who serves on the executive board of the International Paralympic Committee.
“[Biles] is not only focused on being the greatest athlete in the world and then minutes later she’s putting on a diplomat suit and talking about the politics of the sport,” he told BuzzFeed News. “For any athlete at any age, that’s complete overload.”
Ungerleider said the COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated many athletes’ mental health issues as they were forced to delay competitions, adjust their training schedules, and rethink their coaching. Being thrown back into a competition can trigger some of those stressors and bring up new feelings, he added.
“We really don’t know exactly how many Olympic athletes typically struggle with mental health issues largely due to the mental health stigma that still exists in sports,” Suzanne Potts, director of Athletes for Hope told BuzzFeed News. “We do know that 1 in 5 adults struggle with their mental health, and it’s likely that the numbers are higher in elite athletes.”
Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee, expressed her support for Biles, telling her in a tweet, “You’ve made us so proud.”
“Proud of who you are as a person, teammate and athlete,” she said. “We applaud your decision to prioritize your mental wellness over all else, and offer you the full support and resources of our Team USA community as you navigate the journey ahead.”
Laurie Hernandez, another US gymnast, also said she understood her former teammate’s choice given the pressure to carry the team to victory.
“Having to put that much pressure on her to carry the team to gold, it’s not fair,” she said. “This is a team of four, not a team of one.”
She admitted that when she was a member of the 2016 Olympics team, they relied on Biles’ strengths “like a safety net.”
“I know she’s the best, but that is horrifying,” Hernandez said of counting on Biles to carry the team to the gold.
But she also called out the immense and sudden pressure placed on Biles’ three other teammates, Suni Lee, Grace McCallum, and Jordan Chiles, to fight for victory after her withdrawal.
“we need to talk about the amount of pressure on these three ladies. what an AWESOME bar rotation!!absolutely smashed it. and jordan??? ok miss underdog you show em what you can do,” Hernandez said in a tweet.
Biles’ move signals a shift from a focus on what gymnasts can physically do to their mental strength, Linda Barclay, President and CEO of the National Gymnastics Association said to BuzzFeed News.
“Simone’s choice to step back for her health is as trailblazing as her gymnastics,” Barclay said. “The most overlooked issue regarding mental health in the sport of gymnastics is acknowledging it exists, and that mental and emotional well being can put an athlete in a position to succeed or fail. Good health and personal success goes well beyond an athlete’s career.”
Two US men’s gymnastics team members, Yul Moldauer and Shane Wiskus, also commented on Biles’ departure and emphasized the need for empathy.
“Things happen, but we just have to understand the situation,” Moldauer told the Today show on Tuesday.
Biles’ decision will also serve as a signal to younger athletes not to be shy about asking for help, Ungerleider said.
“I think we’re gonna see more athletes come forward and not be so stoic, but just say, ‘Hey, there’s mental health that needs to be addressed,'” Ungerleider said. “A lot of athletes just tough it out, and then come home and have a crash. … Simone just brings such great honor to us all by saying, ‘Yes, I’m a gifted athlete. Yes, I do these amazing maneuvers, but I’m also human. And guess what? I do need time and I am struggling.'”