By Jennifer Roback
2021 is turning into the year that athletes take a stand and put their mental health first.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka made headlines back in June of 2021 when she withdrew from the French Open, and now gymnastics star Simone Biles is following after she withdrew from some events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
On Thursday, July 29, 2021, Biles announced that she would not be competing in both the team finals and the individual all-around event at the 2020 Tokyo Games to focus on her mental health after explaining she was still struggling with the "twisties," which are known as mental blocks from when an athlete loses their spatial awareness during an intense routine and can ultimately lead to injury.
"It's honestly petrifying trying to do a skill but not having your mind and body in sync," Biles said.
"What's even scarier is since I have no idea where I am in the air I also have NO idea how I am going to land. Or what I am going to land on."
While many took to social media to criticize the decorated gymnast, Biles made sure to set the record straight and explain why she pulled out of the events.
"I didn't have a bad performance and quit. I've had plenty of bad performances throughout my career and finished competition," she said. "I simply got so lost my safety was at risk as well as a team medal."
"I don't think you realize how dangerous this is on hard/competition surfaces," she continued "Nor do I have to explain why I put my health first. Physical health is mental health."
Team USA doctor and professor of orthopedics and sports medicine at the University of Illinois, Dr. Mike Hutchinson, added in, that Biles ultimately made the right call.
“It’s really for her, probably worse than anybody else in the world,” Dr. Hutchinson said via WTTW. “If you get disorientated while you’re up in the air doing flips and you don’t know where to land – she could land on her neck.”
Dr. Hutchinson added that had Biles competed and got seriously hurt, many would have then questioned why she was allowed to compete at all.
Biles adds herself to the growing number of athletes who are choosing to speak up and put their mental health first.
Following her decision, swimming legend Michael Phelps, who is one of the most decorated Olympic swimmers of all time, opened up about his feelings on the situation.
"You know, we carry a lot of things, 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. So, it broke my heart," Phelps said
"We’re humans, right? We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect so, yes, it is OK to not be OK. It’s OK to go through ups and downs and emotional roller coasters," he added. "But I think the biggest thing is we all need to ask for help sometimes, too, when we go through those times. For me, I can say personally it was something very challenging. It was hard for me to ask for help. I felt like I was carrying, as Simone said, the weight of the world on [my] shoulders. It’s a tough situation."
Phelps added that he hopes Biles' decision will raise more awareness on mental health and inspire other athletes to ask for help when they need it, as he has spent most of his retirement advocating for mental health awareness.
Following her decision to withdraw from the events, Biles took the necessary time off to heal and was able to come back strong in the balance beam event and take home the bronze medal for Team USA, her seventh Olympic medal overall.
While Biles might be one of the most decorated gymnasts in the world her success has not come without having to overcome struggles.
Back in 2016, rumors had begun surfacing that USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar had been sexually assaulting athletes that were under his guidance, and while Biles was in denial for many years, in January of 2018 she was able to find her strength and her voice to publicly acknowledge that she too, was a survivor of the abuse, before he received a life sentence.
"This horrific experience does not define me," Biles tweeted back then.
It was also revealed on August 4, 2021, that Biles' aunt had unexpectedly passed away while she was in Tokyo, making the trip even more difficult for her.
"At the end of the day, people don't understand what we are going through," Biles said. "Two days ago, I woke up and my aunt unexpectedly passed, and it wasn't any easier being here at the Olympic Games."
"I was like, 'Oh my God. This week needs to be over,'" Biles' coach Cecile Canqueteau-Landi added in, referring to when they learned the news of Biles' aunt. "I asked her, 'What do you need?' And she said, 'I just need some time.' I said, 'You call me, text me if you need anything I'll be here. Whatever that is.' She said, 'There's nothing I can do from over here, so I'm just going to finish my week and when I get home we'll deal with it.'"
Despite the 2020 Tokyo Olympics being one of the most challenging weeks of her career, the strength and power to overcome all she has been through and still walk away with two more Olympic medals proved that she is well-deserving of the title GOAT.
In light of Biles' absence during the events, Team USA continued to impress as USA's MyKayla Skinner won silver on the vault while Jade Carey added another gold medal to the USA's tally in the floor event.
Suni Lee also shined at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after becoming the first Hmong American to compete at the Olympics and was then named the women's gymnastics all-around champion, continuing the United States' 17-year winning streak in that competition.
"Not at all how I imagined or dreamed my second olympics would go but blessed to represent the usa. I’ll forever cherish this unique olympic experience. thanks everyone for the endless love and support. I’m truly grateful 🤍" Biles captioned an Instagram post following the events.