Simon Biles is not a quitter

Simon Biles. Photo: Simon Biles/Twitter

“You have no idea what we are going through- I got a lot of great comments, like a lot of outpouring support and love, but I also got a lot of bad stuff,” says Simon Biles, on winning bronze in Tokyo Olympics, 2020. Biles has marked her Olympics return with bronze, after a mental health battle. She has won the bronze in the beam in the final to add to the silver she won in the team event.

Biles is the most successful US gymnast of all time and winner of four gold medals and a bronze at Rio 2016. The US always placed the expectations much higher when it comes to Biles.

Besides, by withdrawing from several Olympic events, to protect her wellbeing, Simone Biles – the most decorated gymnast – has transcended in her sports. “We have to protect our mind and bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do,” said Biles.

A little over a week after stepping away from the meet to focus on her mental health, she returned to the competition. Before withdrawing from the event, she scored her lowest Olympic vault score, 13.000. She left the arena after the vault but later returned. The comeback took a lot of strength to Biles as her aunt died a few days before the competition. Still, Biles did everything to perform her best. “I wasn’t expecting to walk away with a medal,” Biles said, adding, “To have one more opportunity to be at the Olympics meant the world to me.”

Biles earned her 7th Olympic medal and second in Tokyo with a third-place finish in the balance beam final., a week after she took herself out of several competitions to deal with a mental block that prevented her from twisting while performing. After battling the “twisties” – a dangerous phenomenon experienced by gymnasts robbing them of all sense of direction during aerial feats, she came back to win bronze on beam finals. With all eyes on her in the women’s beam final, she bounced back in style with a strong performance, giving her a score of 14.000.

“I was a little bit nervous for the dismount just because we had to switch it and I probably haven’t done a double pike dismount since I was 12 years old, so it was kind of hard to control that.”

Even though the “twisties” are poorly understood, experts believe they may occur when gymnasts are stressed and overthink movements which are usually automatic, confusing the brain and throwing off their proprioception or sense of positional awareness.

Going into the balance beam final, Biles had daily health checks to see if she was healthy enough to return to competition. There were days when she failed even to breathe. To be sure about competing on the beam final she met twice with a sports psychologist, which she said was helpful because it allowed her to work through the strong emotions she felt after missing most of the Olympics. So, on the final day of artistic gymnastics at the Games, after skipping all but one individual final because she was not mentally prepared, she appeared on the balance beam and performed well enough to win the bronze medal. “I did it for me,” said Biles after taking bronze in the beam final won by Chinese teenager Guan Chenchen.

“It means more than all of the golds because I pushed through so much the last five years and the last week while I have even been here.”

After landing badly from a vault that went awry, the athlete decided to bow out from the women’s team gymnastics final, cheering her teammates on from the sidelines instead. As the face of her sport and of the U.S. team, Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history, needed to challenge herself one more time. Not for everyone else or their expectations, but for herself. Simone Biles did a double pike dismount, which she hasn’t done in approximately 9 years, by drilling a slightly watered-down version of her usual routine in front of the crowd.

Gymnast Simone Biles of Team United States prepares to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Women's Gymnastics Balance Beam Final on Tuesday, August 3. Biles won the bronze medal. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Toni L. Sandys
Washington Post photo by Toni L. Sandys

Looking into the final, the 24-year-old said she had been “fighting all of those demons” relating to perfection and the weight of being an international celebrity. It is apparent that black women always have to compete against more than just their opponents. Biles has described the burden of these Olympics, where she was widely expected to win five gold medals, as having “the weight of the world” on her shoulders.

The sexual abuse Biles suffered at the hands of former US gymnastics team doctor Lawrence G Nasser had a profound inimical effect on her mental health. One thing she couldn’t abide by was her struggling through years of self-doubt as a sexual abuse survivor. As a Black athlete in an overwhelmingly white sport, she has also had to endure racism throughout her career she had to spend an extra year in training on her aching muscles and painful ankles and also dealing with the U.S.A. Gymnastics, the entity that failed to prevent her abuse.

Biles have been criticized as “quitter” “lazy” etc. by some on social media.“I don’t trust myself as much anymore, maybe it’s getting older. There were a couple of days when everybody tweets you and you feel the weight of the world.” Biles said.

Although she has received widespread praise for her decision to withdraw, there was razor-sharp criticism also, following her decision to withdraw. Piers Morgan, the famous British journalist in his tweet, condemned Biles’ decision to withdraw from the Olympic events and disregarded her mental health concerns.

Simon Biles is not a “quitter”, She is an inspiration for athletes all over the world and encouraged the world to listen to themselves self because mental health matters. “I have to focus on my mental health. I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now.” Biles was very lucid in her decision and amplified increased attention on the importance of mental health in sports in general and among Olympians specifically.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the Tokyo Olympics, exacerbating the stresses usually felt by Olympic athletes. Also, they had to go through an extra year of enervating practices.

Athletes used to hide mental health issues behind their physical injuries. The authorities often neglect the mental struggles of athletes. To become a professional athlete is really hard, where they have to combat mental pressures. People insisting athletes sacrifice their health to perform at their behest are totally frightening. The thoughts around the expectations of the people and final performance are more than enough to lead athletes to anxiety and depression. The rollercoaster ride prior to the Olympics, and the fast and hectic dash after that are really exhausting for the athletes.

After the Olympics, many athletes have reported feeling a “crash,” in which they come down from the physical and mental height of the games and sink into depression. both winners and losers are prone to these emotional crashes. This emotional drop, in its most acute form, might be called post-Olympic depression. For Olympic athletes, the competitive pressure, media visibility, and physical exertion combine into an intense trio of forces that can incite severe anxiety.

There are many sports icons who battled on mental health issues.

Simon Biles said that she didn’t want to go out and do something stupid and get hurt. “I feel like a lot of athletes speaking up has really helped… It’s so big, it’s the Olympic games. At the end of the day, we don’t want to be carried out there on a stretcher.” And she added that “we are not just athletes. We are people at the end of the day and sometimes, you just have to step back.”

The pressures of professional sport and its effect on mental health are well recognized – 34 percent of elite athletes in all probability suffer from depression and anxiety. Elite athletes are also unlikely to seek help for mental health, problems due to the stigma they attract, concerns about perceptions of weakness, and the reaction of sports administrators. The IOC has taken some steps to remedy this, including making psychologists available in the Olympic Village and setting up 24-hour “mentally fit” helplines for athletes in 70 languages.

More broadly, Biles’s decision to withdraw should be a wake-up call to take a proactive approach to screen for mental illness and making treatment more accessible at all levels. The difference should be made to protect the mental health of athletes before they get to breaking point. Many athletes have spoken out about their struggles with mental ill-health, but few have sacrificed winning for their wellbeing. The sports industry and individual athletes should take their cue from Biles and in her words: “At the end of the day, we’re not just entertainment, we’re humans,” Biles said. “And I think people forget that.”

Though USA Olympics and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) came out in support of Biles, the sporting establishment still has much to do in protecting the mental health of athletes. Biles hasn’t officially announced her retirement — she’s hinted that she might want to stick around in some fashion until the 2024 Paris Games to honor coaches Laurent and Cecile Landi.

Simon Biles,24, now has a total of 32 Olympic and world medals and has earned seven Olympic medals tying Shannon Miller as the most successful American gymnast in the Games. Biles though has four golds to Millers two. She was also the first American gymnast to win a world championship medal on every apparatus.

Biles said she was nervous while she competed and “shocked” that she medaled, but “I didn’t really care about the outcome. I was just happy that I made the routine, and that I got to compete one more time.” She further says: “The outpouring love and support I have received has made me realize I am more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”

Aliya Muhammed, an independent contributor from Kerala, is now studying Psychology at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi.