Simone Biles, the greatest Olympic gymnast of all time, dropped out of the women’s team event Tuesday morning, citing mental health concerns. Still, the Americans went on to win a silver medal.
Win! That’s no small feat on the world’s most competitive stage.
Grit and grace triumphed.
Not everyone would agree with me. But I’m not going to entertain that negativity. Life is too short, and I’m too excited. Because during what could be considered the most trying Olympics in our modern era, a young woman is choosing herself over the game.
And she is finding support in the arena and on the internet. Social media was ablaze with hearty support for Biles.
The most notable supporter, Today! host Hoda Kotb, tweeted to her 1.2 million followers Tuesday: “Simone Biles already won. She is a class act. Withdrew from team competition after the vault … stayed and cheered her teammates … got them chalk for their hands … encouraged … hugged them. She already won. Congrats on the silver medal. @TeamUSA @USAGym”
That tweet was retweeted more than 32,000 times.
That’s healthy. That’s uplifting. That’s unifying.
If taking care of yourself means stepping back, then so be it. Being mentally tough for competition does not mean sacrificing your sanity.
After adjusting her vault exercise — she twisted only 1.5 times during a 2.5-twisting Yurchenko — Biles bravely admitted in a follow-up news conference that she withdrew from the team final to focus on her own mental health and not jeopardize her well-being.
The turns and twists she does are out of this world. And I can only imagine the solid mental state she would have to be in to land them without hurting herself.
Biles knows her body. She knows her limits. If she wants to compete in the all-around or individual events, it’s wise she sits down for a bit. Anyone who has put in the work for their own mental health knows that wellness doesn’t care about a game schedule.
Biles’ decision was her own to make. And her team won a silver medal for it. That’s the behavior of a true GOAT.
But it seemed there were brave acts happening everywhere — all of them pushing back against the crushing pressure that only gets worse endured under others’ expectations. Young people finally are feeling empowered to protect themselves. These acts of self-care can be seen as the first step in preserving mental health.
Germany’s women’s gymnastic team walked onto the competition floor Sunday wearing ankle-length unitards instead of their cheeky leotards. Their act was a rejection to being sexualized, and that’s a radical act of self-care.
The women’s Norwegian beach handball team refused to play in bikinis last week, opting for elastic shorts, and each member was fined €150 Euros — about $1,768 for the whole team. They, too, didn’t want to be sexualized. Again, radical self-care.
This phenomenon of athletes choosing their well-being over rules and schedules that may not serve them is the Naomi Osaka effect. Osaka withdrew from Wimbledon last month, saying she wanted to take some time off the court because she’d been dealing with long bouts of depression.
Last week Osaka lit the cauldron during the opening ceremony, representing Japan. And on Tuesday she was eliminated in the third round of the singles tournament. She’s still a great player. Sometimes you lose. But she’s doing it on her terms.
“I think these women are showing courage and strength,” said Heather Hersh, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Philly-based consulting firm, Thrive Well-Being. “They are role models for women valuing themselves. The ripple effects will be greater than one more medal or one more championship. They are doing the unpopular thing, putting themselves first.”
So let’s continue to extend grace to Biles and the rest of the American gymnasts. Let’s celebrate their phenomenal win. The team deserves it. Biles deserves it. Women throughout the world deserve it, too. The young athletes aspiring to be the next GOAT will be better for it.