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US Gymnast Simone Biles Puts Mental Health Center Stage After Withdrawal From Second Olympic Event

FILE PHOTO: Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Gymnastics Artistic Training - Ariake Gymnastics Centre, Tokyo, Japan - July 22, 2021 Simone Biles of the United States during training
© REUTERS / DYLAN MARTINEZ

Dominating the world of gymnastics, champion gold medalist Simone Biles recently left many viewers stunned after opting to pull out of two Olympic events in order to focus on her mental health. The famed gymnast has been facing an overwhelming amount of pressure to win gold on the global stage.

Having withdrawn from two events at the Tokyo Olympics, American gymnast Simone Biles has become one of the most instantly recognizable athletes to have helped place the importance of mental health at the forefront of conversations within the sportsworld.

A prominent figure within the world of gymnastics, Biles has spent much of the last several days shedding light on the pressures placed on top-ranked athletes. In fact, she has spent much of her time explaining to reporters the heavy emotional toll brought on by these Summer Games that was at the root of her decision to pull out from the individual all-around competition on Wednesday.

The withdrawal came just one day after the reigning Olympic champion decided to remove herself from the team finals on Tuesday after uncharacteristically failing to stick her landing on vault.

© REUTERS / DYLAN MARTINEZ
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Gymnastics - Artistic - Women's Individual All-Around - Qualification - Ariake Gymnastics Centre, Tokyo, Japan - July 25, 2021. Simone Biles of the United States looks on during competition.

At the time, Biles explained during a conference after the Tuesday event that she withdrew herself because the mental focus needed in order to deliver her best was simply “not there.”

“I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat, work on my mindfulness,” Biles stated. “And I knew that the girls would do an absolutely great job. And I didn't want to risk the team a medal for kind of my screwups, because they've worked way too hard for that.”

Reports indicated that Biles would be attempting two full rotations on vault, however, the champion athlete was unable to do so. Biles wrote off the setback, noting she felt as though she “got a little bit lost in the air.”

Analyzing her mental state and well-being, it was then that Biles opted to remove herself from the first event - the team final.

“And you usually don't hear me say things like that, because I'll usually persevere and push through things - but not to cost the team a medal,” Biles said, recalling the moment she told her teammates and coaches that she needed to sit the event out. “So they were like, 'OK, well, if Simone says this, then we need to take it pretty serious.' So I had the correct people around me to do that.”

Although the team did manage to clinch silver medals, the all-too constant feelings of pressure remained. Biles detailed during the Tuesday conference that the 2020 Games have been “really stressful,” reiterating past comments she made over the weekend after taking a few stumbles during the Olympic qualifiers.

A subsequent statement released by USA Gymnastics indicated that Biles would be “assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions.” However, an assessment the following day concluded that she would also not be participating in the individual all-around event.

© REUTERS / DYLAN MARTINEZ
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Gymnastics - Artistic - Women's Team - Final - Ariake Gymnastics Centre, Tokyo, Japan - July 27, 2021. Simone Biles of the United States wearing a protective face mask is seen leaving a medical station during the final

“After further medical evaluation, Simone Biles has withdrawn from the final individual all-around competition,” USA Gymnastics announced early Wednesday. “We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being.”

“Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many,” the group added.

Prior to the Wednesday announcement, Biles had underscored that her continued participation in the games would largely depend on her mental state the day of events. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” she said.

It’s worth noting that unlike other headlining events at the Olympics such as swimming, where a bad mental state may see a swimmer fall back on their pace, gymnasts face severe injuries and the threat of becoming paralyzed in the event they lose their footing.

The dangers of gymnastics were regrettably highlighted with the case of American gymnast Julissa Gomez, a then 15-year-old athlete who slipped and broke her neck while practicing a vault at the World Sports Fair in Japan in the late 1980s. 

The devastating fall, which saw Gomez momentarily stop breathing, lose consciousness and slip into a coma, left her permanently paralyzed from the neck down. She died three years later.

Robert Andrews, who served as Biles’ mental training consultant for some five years, told the Wall Street Journal for a Wednesday story that “if her brain decided to shut off midair, that could be horrific for her.”

Biles’ spot in the individual all-around will see fellow American gymnast Jade Carey sub in for the competition. The decorated Olympic athlete had won the all-around event at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, and potentially could have been the first woman in over 50 years to win back-to-back titles.

Athletes Weigh In Amid Growing Spotlight on Mental Health

Michael Phelps, who is one of the most decorated Olympians with over 20 medals, weighed in on Biles’ latest withdrawal and revealed to NBC’s “Today” show on Wednesday that the light shed on mental health by Biles should be used as an “opportunity for all of us to really learn more about mental health.”

"For me, I want people to be able to have somebody that can support them, who’s non-judgmental and who is willing to hold space,” he remarked. “There’s a lot that we can do to help one another and we have to start. We can’t brush it under the rug anymore.”

In follow-up remarks to the outlet, Phelps stressed that efforts by Biles and other athletes to speak on their mental health would help to effectively provide a solid support system within the sports world.

© Sputnik / Alexander Vilf
2016 Summer Olympics. Swimming. Day Six

Phelps, who has served as a mental health awareness advocate and been vocal about his own hurdles, further underscored that the pressure can at times be “overwhelming” for athletes, and that it can come from “absolutely everywhere,” especially during competition.

Earlier, former Olympic gold-winning gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Gabby Douglas both acknowledged the mental struggles posed by the sport, opting to encourage fans and viewers to offer their support over criticism.

And that’s not all: support and acknowledgement of the difficulties has trickled in across social media, including from Dominique Moceanu, who competed in the 1996 Olympics Games despite having landed on her head during a balance beam routine. US gymnast Kerri Strug, who also competed in the 1996 Games and injured her ankle during the events, offered her support.
Even pop sensation Justin Bieber took to Instagram to acknowledge Biles’ bravery in the face of hardship. “Sometimes our no’s are more powerful than our yes’s. When what you normally love starts to steal your joy it’s important we take a step back to evaluate why,” he wrote.

Biles’ recent comments on mental health come as tennis superstar Naomi Osaka has also been vocal on the importance of hitting a mental pause. In fact, Osaka withdrew from the French Open after clashing with officials for skipping conferences in order to mentally readjust.

The American gymnast told reporters after the Tuesday event that she was encouraged to withdraw by Osaka’s own decisions to prioritize her well-being over sport.

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