Simone Biles mental health Tokyo Olympics

Simone Biles is a goddamn superstar

“By choosing to listen to her inner voice and prioritizing her physical and mental health, Simone Biles made it okay for others to do the same. She’s removing the stigma from these necessary choices and that makes her a real role model.”

When U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles decided to withdraw from competition to look after her mental health last week, it caused quite the reaction. While most people commended her for listening to her body and respecting her limits, it was also inevitable that the weekend warriors and the armchair Olympians — basically, the people least qualified to do so — would immediately spring to action to volunteer their advice or offer up harsh criticism. 

Suddenly, people who’ve never experienced the physical and mental grindstone of elite training and competition were disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to see Biles perform for them from the comfort of their La-Z-Boy sofa. “She owed them that much,” they said. “They wouldn’t have cracked under the pressure,” they reassured us. 

The worst, by far, were Fox News commentators and U.S. right-wing conservative talking heads who called Biles “selfish”, “soft”, “immature” and a “shame to the country.” It would be easy to mock the tragicomic combination of toxic masculinity and overinflated confidence that leads certain mediocre men to offer up unsolicited criticism of a 24-year-old who has achieved far more in her young life than they ever will in theirs, if not for how sad it all really is. Cruel remarks such as these are, unsurprisingly, representative of these men’s inability to tackle mental-health issues with vulnerability and honesty. These attitudes continue to harm people like them and those around them.

Biles is the stuff of champions

The notion that Simone Biles could ever be a disappointment to her country and her sport is, of course, ludicrous. With a combined total of 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, she is the most decorated American gymnast in the U.S. and is considered one of the greatest of all time. She is also the first woman to complete a triple twisting double somersault on floor exercise and the first gymnast to complete a double twisting double somersault dismount off the balance beam. 

She has managed to reach this level of extraordinary athletic excellence despite having a difficult and unstable childhood, growing up in foster homes, dealing with anxiety and confidence issues, suffering from attention deficit syndrome and being sexually abused by gymnastics coach Larry Nasar while USA Gymnastics attempted to cover up the abuse. Nothing has come easy for this young woman and any single one of these experiences would have slowed most of us down, but not her. 

Despite all these obstacles and these deeply traumatic experiences, she rose to a level of competition and athletic achievement most of us can only dream of. She reached that pinnacle by sacrificing and training her body and mind for years. Elite athletes train to push beyond the boundaries of comfort and pain. They’re used to ignoring those signals so they can push themselves farther. So, when they decide it’s too much, they are — by far — the ones best suited to know it’s simply too much.

But apparently, they are not.

“There is nothing remotely courageous, heroic or inspiring about quitting,” said renowned elite athlete Piers Morgan, who, my guess is, would probably throw out his back if he attempted a cartwheel. Am I making fun of a middle-aged, out-of-shape man? No. I, too, would not be able to attempt anything Simone Biles does while competing, except, perhaps, the part where she applies chalk to her hands. But at least I have the self-awareness to know this. Piers Morgan does not. 

These athletes owe us nothing

Biles’ critics need to be reminded that she and tennis star Naomi Osaka, who recently decided to withdraw from the Wimbledon tournament to take personal time, don’t owe them anything. No explanation, no apologies, no promises to make it up to them. Nothing. This is their personal journey and we’re just along for the ride. 

The pressure to perform, to reach the Olympic podium, to medal, to make your family, your coach, your friends, your teammates and your country proud is enormous. It can take the pure joy that propelled someone to excel and shine in their chosen field and turn it into a nightmare. A few bad injuries, a few rough patches, a few personal problems and the confidence one needs to land that jump, hit that target, get into the right headspace to win can disappear. And in its place enter fear, insecurity, ‘what if’s’ and creeping doubts. Olympic athletes may look and compete like they’re superhuman, but they are just as human as the rest of us when it comes to their emotional landscape and the pressure to perform. And the past 18 months of a pandemic have tested everyone’s mental and physical limits. Why should they be unaffected? 

Fine line between pushing yourself and ignoring signs of distress

In a recent interview, tennis star Novak Djokovic stated that, “Pressure is a privilege… without pressure there is no professional sport. If you are aiming to be at the top of your game, you better start learning how to deal with the pressure — on and off the court.” He would later hurl a racket into the stands and break another by smashing it to the ground after losing his match, so maybe he was just warning us of what was to come.

His comment (accompanied by his outburst) spread like wildfire on social media because many associated it with Biles’ decision to withdraw, but it wasn’t aimed at her at all. Djokovic’s statement was mainly meant for himself (he clearly has his own battles to wage) and how he feels about the pressure to compete. It wasn’t inaccurate. Elite athletes are under immense pressure and part of their training involves sports psychologists teaching them how to harness that fear so they can perform despite it.  

But the pressure to fight through any misgivings, to ignore signs telling you that you need to slow down or walk away because you’re afraid to disappoint those relying on you is deeply dangerous. It’s dangerous for top-level athletes, and it’s dangerous for the rest of us, too. 

Breaking the taboo of mental health discussions

Every single day there are ordinary non-Olympians around us who don’t have a spotlight on them, but who push their bodies and their minds too far. Because they’re afraid to ask for help, or because they’ve been raised to believe it’s shameful and unproductive to take a mental-health leave, or because they worry that their boss, their partner, their friends will think less of them if they admit to depression or overwhelming stress or inability to finish what they promised they would. These people push through until they break. 

In our results-oriented society we often confuse “not quitting” with strength, and weakness with walking away. We have prioritized success (usually financial success) to the detriment of our sanity. But sometimes being strong means being able to know when to walk away and when to ask for help. It took great strength, self-awareness and courage for Biles to be able to admit, “I don’t feel right. I am not able to perform at my peak.” And then to step aside — for her team’s sake and for her own. 

By choosing to listen to her inner voice and prioritizing her physical and mental health, Simone Biles made it okay for others to do the same. She’s removing the stigma from these necessary choices and that makes her a real role model. She may stand at just four-feet eight-inches tall, but she’s a giant in my eyes. The best kind of champion. ■

Simone Biles is a goddamn superstar

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.