Simone Biles did one vault at the Tokyo Olympic Games on Tuesday and then said no more for today. She pulled out of the Team USA Gymnastics event, and they still will come home with the silver. On Wednesday it was announced that Biles also withdrew from the individual all-around competition.
During July 27th’s “3rd Hour of Today,” Hoda Kotb was interviewing Biles and her teammates, and Biles said, “We hope America still loves us.”
How can the country not love this team, comprising: Biles, Jade Carey, Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee, Grace McCallum and MyKayla Skinner? Biles, the GOAT who is the commercial darling of the Tokyo Olympics (one just has to see her greatness in the many commercials that she’s in), decided to step back from the main stage when the world was watching and cheer, coach and bolster her teammates on the sidelines.
While the world sucked in their collective breath and sat in surprise, I for one, did a head nod to her poise and sportsmanship, and breathed a sigh of relief that Biles did not remove herself from further competition due to injury. Instead, she admitted to her feelings under the microscope.
“I truly 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.” She went on to tell Kotb that she was “super frustrated” and while physically, she felt good, “emotionally, it varies on the time and moment.”
I don’t know about you, but that’s the modus operandi for most on a day-to-day basis even without performing on a global stage. Add to that being a Black woman in America, and society may not know how to measure the stress by traditional means. Folks are taken aback by her decision, but I’m more in shock at seeing the world is surprised.
It’s not like we haven’t seen this earlier this year with Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open. It’s not like Biles hadn’t mentioned using therapy prior to the Games. Trust was a concern, pain was lingering after practices now more than it did when she was younger. The 24-year-old said she was doing gymnastics not for herself, but for the rest of the world.
“I know that this Olympic Games I want it to be for myself,” she told Reuters. “I came in and it felt like I was still doing it for other people, so that just hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
For someone who tallied four golds and six total medals at the 2016 Rio Games, including gold medals in the all-around and vault competitions, Biles does not have anything to prove. She’s the most decorated U.S. women’s gymnast ever with 31 World/Olympic medals, per USA Gymnastics. If she wants to do nothing but TED Talks and sudoku for the rest of her life, she’s earned it. She’s proved it time and time again in her dedication and commitment to a sport that is still reeling from Larry Nassar’s impact.
She will be headlining a “Gold Over America” tour that comes to Allstate Arena Oct. 17, which will be a mixture of sports and entertainment intended to inspire the next generation of female athletes.
She is beloved because she is human. Englewood native and licensed therapist Kevin Woods II applauds her move. A former basketball player at Utah Valley University, Woods now serves as the department’s athletics mental health specialist, working with current student athletes. He said seeing Biles pull out of the Olympics team event was one of the “most mentally tough things he’s ever seen.
“We don’t normalize burnout in athletics at all, on any stage, any level,” Woods said. “Even when NBA players try to sit out and just take a break, we fine them, because we’re fans and hey, we want our money’s worth tonight and fans pay to come see you play, so you cannot sit. We put all this pressure on our athletes and a way in which it takes self out of it for them. So now they’re just doing it for everyone except them. When you take yourself out of something, it’s hard to enjoy it. It doesn’t matter how good you are at anything, if it’s not fun anymore it’s gonna be hard as hell to do.”
Woods said taking breaks, self-care and burnout needs to be normalized.
“The way you know it’s not normalized, is when someone speaks up about mental health whether it’s tennis or gymnastics and the world is in shock: ‘Ohmigod, how can they take a step back, what are they doing.’
“We forget they’re people too. They’re not video game characters that can keep going and going — they deal with everything that we deal with, but they’re on the world stage dealing with that, especially when you have millions of individuals looking up to you, millions you want to prove wrong ... that pressure is hard to handle mentally. Anything damaging mentally eventually turns physical. It’s not just Simone Biles. We’ll see a lot more athletes start to deteriorate in a sense of this longevity of pressure/performing, pressure/performing until it’s like: ‘What I am doing?’”
Clinical psychologist Inger Burnett-Zeigler, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and author of the book “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women,” agrees. She says the mental health strain Biles must be under is hard to imagine given her childhood and past abuse on top of the pressure of performing as an Olympic athlete. She said Biles embracing her health holistically is a “beautiful example not only for other athletes but for other people, particularly people of color who have not traditionally prioritized their mental health.”
“There’s that pressure to perform, to succeed. ... Being a champion athlete I imagine is part of her identity and something she holds with great pride, but she is an exemplar strong Black woman and when we think about strong Black women, there’s that other side of them — her other life experiences that might be contributing to the strain she’s experiencing right now and not being talked about,” Burnett-Zeigler said.
“We don’t know the impact that she’s been carrying with the abuse, we don’t know the impact of the childhood trauma that she is carrying with her combined with the stress and anxiety of being in this high-pressure, highly visible situation, so there are a lot of potential factors that might be contributing to her mental health state in this moment, but I think what’s most important is she’s taken a self-assessment and decided for herself what she needs in order to be well right now and she’s doing that even in spite of any potential criticism, which is a really brave and difficult thing for somebody to do.”
Brave Biles. She knows it. And now the rest of the world knows it. Holistic mental health is a human thing no matter what stage you may stand on. Recognize.