Simone Biles sparks conversation on mental health

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles's decision to pull out of the team competition at the Olympics due to mental health issues shocked Americans who were expecting to see the world champion snag as many as six gold medals at the Tokyo Games.

But health advocates and sports experts say the move by the decorated athlete has helped put the issue of mental well being front and center, shining a light on the struggles faced by both high-level athletes and everyday Americans.

“We associate athletes with an exceptionally high degree of self awareness about what it means to be in top fitness in regard to their health, and I think that this is the perfect way to advance our understanding that our mental health is health,” Schroeder Stribling, CEO of Mental Health America, said.

The pressure on elite athletes like Biles is “unimaginable,” Stribling added, but “still relatable.” 

USA Gymnastics announced on Tuesday that Biles would withdraw from the team final competition due to a “medical issue.” The announcement from the athletic body came after a performance by Biles on the vault, after which she pulled on a white sweat suit to cheer on her other teammates for the event.

Biles later told reporters that she had been “fighting all those demons.” 

“I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured. So I thought it was best if these girls took over and did the rest of the job which they absolutely did… they should be really proud of themselves,” she said on Tuesday.

“It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games,” she added, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has made the dynamic of the competition different, particularly with the absence of fans and family members in the stands. 

At the time, she left the door open to competing in the individual all-around event.

“We’re going to take it one day at a time,” she said.

However, on Thursday, Biles announced that she would not compete in the competition in order to “focus on her mental health,” according to USA Gymnastics.

The news drew varying reactions.

Some called Biles a “quitter.” The deputy attorney general from her home state of Texas, Aaron Reitz, went so far as to call the 24-year-old “childish” and “selfish” in a Twitter post. He later deleted the tweet and apologized. 

Others, however, heralded Biles for prioritizing her health. She received words of encouragement from fellow Olympic gold medalists like gymnast Aly Raisman, swimmer Michael Phelps and speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno.

During an interview with CNN host Jake Tapper on Tuesday, Raisman said she was proud of her former teammate for knowing her limits.

“It’s really dangerous to say, ‘I feel really off today, I’m just going to ignore that and push myself anyways,’ and that’s when injuries can occur,” said Raisman. “I can’t imagine how hard that was for her to pull out today, but I’m proud of her.”

For many athletes, prioritizing mental health can be challenging in a sports culture that teaches them to push through any adversity. Most elite athletes spend almost their entire lives trying to reach peak performance, which they hope will translate into qualifying for the Olympics.

The Olympic Games then brings added pressure with the whole world watching and an athlete’s home country eager to see a gold medal performance.

“We have to understand the internal and external forces that are going on….Most of us who are training for the Olympics and Paralympics have been training since we were little kids,” said Mia Ives-Rublee, an elite wheelchair track and field athlete and director of the Disability and Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

Ives-Rublee recalled when she had broken her leg amid competition, and the pressure from coaches to get back in the weight room while she was recovering.

“It’s hard to separate yourself from your identity as an athlete from anything else, from being anything else,” she said.

For this reason, Ives-Rublee said, she has “nothing but admiration” for what Biles did.

The pressure to succeed, however, is not exclusive to world class athletes.

During an interview with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, Brett Rapkin, director of HBO’s documentary “Weight of Gold,” said there is a “watershed moment going on” when it comes to mental health.

“When you talk about the lack of balance that these athletes might have, I see a lot of these issues also relating to the rest of us,” Rapkin said.

“You know, I see us as living in a culture that can feel really zero-sum game, at times — you know, you lose your job, you lose your health insurance — it’s scary. And so I think, like, these things like balance, and focus and identity are something that we’re all dealing with.”

The film producer, whose documentary explores the mental health struggles that elite athletes face throughout the course of their Olympic journey and afterward, said that what Biles did this week is the “biggest story in sports,” if not the “biggest story in our culture right now.”

Biles's withdrawal comes almost two months after four-time grand slam champion tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open to prioritize her mental well being. Osaka revealed in a post on Instagram that she had been dealing with waves of depression since her U.S. Open win in 2018, and needed to take some time away from the court.

Rapkin said that regardless of one's opinion on Biles’s decision to withdraw, people are now talking about mental health.

“There’s an expectation that she should grit through it, and there’s some people that are angry that she’s not, and it’s opening up conversations at dinner tables across the country and across the world,” Rapkin said.

Mental Health America’s Stribling said that Biles’s decision to pull out of the competition and be honest about her mental health struggle sets an example for others to prioritize their mental well being.

“Simone is providing such a professional role model, the fitness to compete is both her mental and physical health,” said Stribling.

“Anytime we are promoting openness and we are advancing the anti-stigma agenda we are in the solution and not in the problem.”

On top of being a role model for athletes, Stribling said that her actions as a survivor of sexual assault speak volumes to a community that often feels shame and marginalization.

In 2018, Biles said she had been sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who was accused by over 100 women of sexual mistreatment under the guise of medical necessity. He was sentenced to over 200 years in prison after he was convicted on various charges tied to the allegations.

Stribling called it a “gift” to survivors, young women and women of color for Biles to openly acknowledge that she was “not in the right mental space to continue right now.”

Experts said they hope other athletes and Americans will feel more comfortable speaking about their mental status before hitting a crisis point. 

“I think it’s going to inspire tons of additional people — athletes and non-athletes — to use mental health as a reason to take care of themselves,” Rapkin said.

Ives-Rublee said she hopes more athletes will see Biles's and know that "it's OK to step away."

Following the positive reactions on social media, Biles tweeted, “The outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”

USA Gymnastics announced Friday night that Biles would not compete in the vault and uneven bars individual events scheduled for Sunday following medical evaluation. U.S. gymnast MyKayla Skinner will compete with her teammate Jade Carey for the vault event.

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