Entertainment

Gymnast Simone Biles is owning her mental health. That doesn’t make her a ‘quitter’

US gymnast Simone Biles sent shockwaves through Tokyo when she withdrew from the Olympics. But she should be praised for putting her mental health first.

Burnout can happen to all of us. Even when you’re the greatest in the world at what you do, maybe especially. It makes you feel fatigued, unfocused and can leave you feeling defeated.

Overnight, gymnast for the United States Simone Biles withdrew from the women’s finals in a decision that sent shockwaves.

Initially, the reason for her withdrawal was vague, simply cited as “medical issues” in an official statement from USA Gymnastics, but it was later revealed Biles wasn’t feeling on top of her game mentally. You could tell something was… off.

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The four-time gold medallist competed in Team USA’s first rotation on vault, only to stumble on the landing, which for anyone who’s watched her compete is hugely uncharacteristic. She was whisked away by her trainer and team doctor, only to emerge later to cheer on her team from the sidelines.

“It’s been really stressful this Olympic Games,” Biles said during the press conference afterward.

“Just as a whole, not having an audience. There are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week. It’s been a long Olympic process. It’s been a long year. Just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out. But we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.” It takes courage to admit that, more courage than to push through.

In previous years, she’d do just that. This time, Biles was worried her mental state would risk physical injury. She observed she truly feels “like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times” in an Instagram post yesterday and has spoken in previous interviews about facing her “demons”.

Indeed, the Tokyo 2020 2.0 Olympic Games have been like no other. A year delay due to the pandemic, heightened health risks, and the subsequent lack of crowds can take a surprising toll on athletes.

“Crowd noise and excitement are something that increase athletes’ adrenalin even further,” says James Houle, lead sports psychologist for Ohio State Athletics told TIME.

“Without a crowd, athletes will really have to find that energy within themselves or from their teammates. They will have to rely on each other more than ever to help with that energy,” not to mention being separated from loved ones and families cheering them on only virtually. Biles will take a mental health day on Wednesday, however, it’s unclear whether she will be back to compete.

We set exceptionally, other-worldly expectations on athletes. These people who are in peak physical condition are unfairly treated like gods, but Biles has just reminded the world of her humanity. And that makes her a champion, too.