Even if you haven’t been watching the Olympic Games like a hawk, you’ve likely heard the biggest news of the week: Gymnast Simone Biles, who is widely regarded as the greatest of all time, withdrew from the women’s team contest after her first rotation on the vault Tuesday, and then pulled out from the individual all-around competition the following day.
She didn’t sustain a physical injury during her vault, nor had she been physically hurt while training, so there were initially a lot of questions as to why she withdrew.
Later Tuesday, Biles acknowledged her mental health as the reason, saying that the pressure she faces to perform at the Games has had an adverse affect on her.
“This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself, but I was still doing it for other people,” Biles told reporters Tuesday. “It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”
She also described her morning, saying that it went OK, but that during the 5 1/2-hour wait, she was just shaking and could barely nap -- something she’d never experienced before, going into a competition. She went on to say that she tried to go out there and have fun, but once she was on the mat, she knew the mental piece she needed was not there.
In an interview with “Today” host Hoda Kotb, Biles said she’s feeling good physically, but emotionally, it varies, depending on the time and the moment.
“Coming to the Olympics and being head star isn’t an easy feat,” she said.
Many people have commended Biles for keeping tabs on her mental health, regardless of what that means for her Olympic standings or living up to the expectations of others.
Michael Phelps, a 23-time Olympic gold medalist who has been called the greatest of all time in swimming, responded to Biles’ announcement with empathy, telling the “Today” show that his first reaction was wanting to make sure Biles was OK.
“We carry a lot of weight on our shoulders, and it’s challenging, especially when we have the lights on us and all of these expectations that are being thrown on top of us,” Phelps said. “This is an opportunity for us -- all of us -- to learn more about mental health, to all help each other out. I want people to be able to have somebody to be able to support them, who is nonjudgmental and is willing to hold space [for them]. There’s a lot we can do to help one another, and we can’t brush it under the rug.”
This comes at a time when, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began, more light has been shed on the importance of mental health.
Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, who represented her country in lighting the Olympic Torch, has come out in recent months, publicly addressing her own mental health struggles. In fact, the Tokyo Olympics marked Osaka’s first major tournament in two months after she decided to withdraw from the French Open and Wimbledon to manage her mental health.
Some have compared Biles’ response and withdrawal to the infamous Olympic performance from Kerri Strug in which Strug completed on vault on a broken ankle to help her team win gold at the 1996 Olympic Games.
As many know, though Biles pulled herself from the competition this week, Strug went ahead with her vault.
The Strug-Biles comparisons on social media, which you can check out below, just might show far we have evolved in regards to mental health, and many took to social media to support that.
DO NOT BEGIN COMPARING #SimoneBiles TO #KerriStrug. Time, circumstances, expectations, everything is different now, 25 years later. I remember watching Kerri’s vault and wondering why she went thru with the second pass. Now I wish she’d been able to stand up for herself the way— the dorkiest mom ever (@NatalieCarbone2) July 28, 2021
People are keep saying #KerriStrug vaulted on a damaged ankle so, @Simone_Biles should keep going. My thought is that Biles is doing things that couldn't have been IMAGINED in the 90's and the degree of difficulty cannot be compared. Heal up, Simone no matter what's hurt.— 💙🐧 Mrs. Jamstep 🌺💙 (@schobs22) July 27, 2021
Kudos to #SimoneBiles for standing up for herself.— Amy (@bikecheerleader) July 28, 2021
Last night's continued 'hounding' asking questions instead of focus on her teammates who won silver, highlighted the pressures she's endured. Reminded me of #KerriStrug & vault on injured ankle she was told to do by coach
Half the people commenting about #Simone comparing #KerriStrug weren’t even alive when she vaulted. Most don’t even know the dark history surrounding that time. Yes she did a great thing but at what cost to her mental state and her body.— Holly (@Chagiya30) July 27, 2021
Have you looked back on Strug’s performance?
In hindsight, now, some say it’s hard to watch -- perhaps because they are now a parent, have struggled with mental health issues themselves, or maybe we’ve learned over the years to give people grace and acknowledge the importance of mental health.
And who better than a fellow professional athlete to weigh in on the matter?
From a gymnast friend regarding Simone Biles 🐐❤️ pic.twitter.com/4eWPIgi4yf— Brandon Marino (@TheBatMarino) July 27, 2021
And we can’t help but love what Kotb tweeted in reference to Biles’ withdrawal.
Someone said it best. @Simone_Biles already won. She is a class act. Withdrew from team competion after vault... stayed and cheered on her teammates... got them chalk for their hands.. encouraged.. hugged them. She already won. Congrats on the silver medal! @TeamUSA @USAGym— Hoda Kotb (@hodakotb) July 27, 2021
While we continue to applaud Team USA, we will also be eager to see what’s next from Biles.