Simone Biles is perhaps the most well-known American gymnast in history, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the face of the 2021 USA Olympic team. At just 24-years-old, Simone Biles has become the most decorated gymnast in the world, setting records that will be remembered for lifetimes. But her career is not always fun and Games, spotlights, and shiny medals. At the end of the day, Simone Biles is human and bears her own struggles. We saw those come to light during the Tokyo Olympic Games.
In the view of fans worldwide, Simone Biles withdrew from the all-around individual competition and the women’s team finals during the Tokyo Olympics. She was struggling with her mental health at the time, and that posed great risk for her physical safety.
In a sport like gymnastics, one that’s entirely dependent on precision and control, it is important to be both physically and mentally aware. Biles recognized she was fine physically that day, but was not mentally. And that, in itself, presented dangers to her overall health.
In an Instagram post, Biles wrote, “For anyone saying I quit. I didn’t quit, my mind & body are simply not in sync.”
After the initial withdrawal, Simone Biles said she needed to step back and “work on her mindfulness” before returning to finish the events.
Biles’ Step Back Was a Step Forward for Mental Health Conversations
In some ways, Biles felt as though she was disappointing her fans and America as a whole. At the same time, however, she knew what she needed to do for herself, to be her best possible self. And she was applauded for it—by teammates, athletes, and fans across the nation.
Alex Bowen, a member of USA’s men’s water polo team, commended her decision. He recognizes the tremendous amount of pressure athletes have, not just from the world, but within themselves. “To be able to overcome your own ego and step aside, that’s huge,” he stated. “That’s a mental marvel. It’s something we all try hopefully to do all the time, but I don’t think many people can do that.”
Former USA gymnast Aly Raisman said it’s important for us to remember how much pressure Simone was facing, and that “there’s only so much that someone can take.” She continued, “She’s human, and I think sometimes people forget that, and Simone, just like everyone else, is doing the best that she can.”
Kate Nye, a USA weightlifter who also earned a silver medal in Tokyo, was given the courage to talk about her own mental health. “I know what it’s like to have severe mental health issues,” Nye revealed. “As someone with bipolar disorder and ADHD, I could definitely relate to the overwhelming nature of sport. I’m of the opinion that you have to put yourself first. [Simone] should have done what was best for her, and she did.”
President Joe Biden also praised her decision to prioritize her mental health, and to do it on the biggest stage in the world. “You had the courage to say, ‘I need some help, I need some time, and you gave an example to everybody.’”
In that same conversation with the President, Simone Biles stated, “The Olympics was not how I expected it to go, but putting my mental and my physical health first will probably be one of my greatest accomplishments.”
By putting her own mental health first, and showcasing her struggles on the Olympic floor, Simone Biles broke ground. She showed the world that it’s okay not to be okay. She showed athletes that they don’t need to be strong all the time, and that mental health struggles do not make you any less of an athlete. She showed fans that athletes are human first. Most of all, she illuminated the important conversation of mental health – showing that it needs to be talked about in order for others to effectively cope with, and overcome, their own mental health struggles.
Simone Biles is not the first one to be transparent about her battle with mental health. However, she has undoubtedly taken one more step forward in eliminating the stigma around these conversations. Leading up to the Olympic Games in Tokyo, tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from several events in efforts to preserve and protect her mental health. Simone Biles was inspired and praised Osaka for this, stating, “It’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor or a person that you really are.”
Michael Phelps, a former Team USA swimmer and the most decorated Olympic athlete in history, has also been candid about his struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts. Phelps is an advocate for mental health, and even spends his retirement years advising athletes on the importance of mental health care.
Simone Biles’ Fight for Mental Health
Like many athletes, Simone Biles has long struggled with the pressure to be the best. Especially as the face of Team USA, she’s said she felt as though the world was on her shoulders at times. However, the pressure she faces also comes from her own self, constantly pushing herself beyond the limits she’s set.
Pressure leads to stress, and stress is a leading cause of mental health issues.
Another cause of mental health disorders, particularly in young women, is sexual abuse. Research shows that 70 percent of sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress in their lifetime. Almost 95 percent will experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. One-third of women who are raped will contemplate suicide. As many fans know, Simone Biles is a survivor of sexual abuse.
In 2018, Simone Biles told the world that she, too, was a victim of Larry Nassar. Larry Nassar, the former doctor of the USA women’s gymnastics team, abused Biles along with hundreds of other young women during their time in training. Simone Biles says Larry Nassar “took a part of me that I can’t get back.”
Due to this, Biles also has carried a great burden of trauma, leading to symptoms of depression. “At one point I slept so much because, for me, it was the closest thing to death without harming myself. It was an escape from all of my thoughts, from the world, from what I was dealing with. It was a really dark time,” she explained of the abuse.
Simone Biles is the only known “survivor” of Nassar’s abuse who is still competing for Team USA. While the gymnast still struggles with ongoing trauma, trust issues, anxiety and fear, she has chosen to use her platform to help the many other people who may be struggling. She has chosen to use her platform to hold the USA Leadership team accountable for the Larry Nassar abuse scandal. She is not there to simply be an Olympic athlete, or to be on Team USA. She is there to set an example and to ensure this does not happen to anyone else.
Biles also sets an example by promoting the positive outcomes of therapy. She said that therapy helped her rediscover her love for gymnastics. She says that therapy also helped her “get in tune” with herself, so that she felt more comfortable and less anxious. In an interview with Glamour, Biles admitted, “I thought I could figure it out on my own, but that’s sometimes not the case. And that’s not something you should feel guilty or ashamed of. Once I got over that fact, I actually enjoyed it and looked forward to going to therapy. It’s a safe space.”
We Applaud You, Simone Biles
Simone Biles has set the stage for future Olympic athletes, helping the world recognize that it’s okay not to be okay and that, in order to be the best version of yourself, you have to put your own mental health first. For this, Biles has helped revolutionize the way we view mental health disorders among athletes.
At Turnbridge, we applaud Simone Biles and the many other athletes who have contributed to a more open, honest, and positive conversation about mental health. As a substance abuse and mental health treatment center, we recognize that taking this step, and putting your struggles into words, is no easy feat. However, in turn, it is one of the greatest feats of all.
If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health issues, please do not hesitate to take action or to start a conversation about mental health in your home. Talking about mental health is one of the best things you can do to help someone who is struggling. By letting them know that you are there to help or simply to listen, you can save their life. If you need guidance or professional support, know that we are also here for you. Call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 at any time of day, any day of the week.