On a balmy July day in 1996, I sat among a gaggle of leotard-clad girls at my gymnastics camp as our coaches excitedly recounted the memorable events of the previous night. I was just 9 years old.
The U.S. women’s gymnastics team had won its first-ever team Olympic gold medal. As our coaches told it, the competition had unfolded like a fairy tale. By famously and painfully vaulting on an injured ankle, Kerri Strug gave the Atlanta Games one of its signature moments.
Strug was praised — by my coaches, the media, and just about everybody — for stoicism and dedication to team success. I didn’t see the vault until the next day, watching on what would become a well-worn VHS tape. Yet, those heroics stayed with me to the point of dressing like Strug for Halloween and writing a school report about her bravery.
She became an indelible role model who embodied self-sacrifice and work ethic for all. These memories represent an important part of my childhood, even as I have moved on from the sport to become a children’s mental health therapist.
Every four years, I am reminded of Strug’s vault, particularly as the U.S. women’s gymnastics has grown to dominate the sport. I entered this Olympic week a bit weary from the pandemic year but hoping to tap into the nostalgia of 1996.
Signature Olympic moments are viewed by millions, and gymnastics events receive the most airtime among women’s Olympic sports in the United States. This year, 19.8 million American households watched the qualification rounds. The Olympics make for family-friendly TV; parenting websites publish viewing guides to help maximize teachable moments of teamwork and sportsmanship.
What happens in the Olympics matters to everyone who watches them, especially children. Which brings us to the events of this past week in Tokyo.
When Simone Biles, widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, withdrew from Tuesday’s women’s team final, she cited the need to care for her own mental health. It instantly became a hot-button story. Under ordinary circumstances this would be significant. Amid the pandemic, the positive impact of Biles’ public withdrawal is potentially monumental.
Biles has spoken openly about taking anxiety medication and seeking therapy in the past. As a therapist for children and adolescents, I find her openness refreshing and healthy, irrespective of criticism it garnered. I can share with my clients that one of the world’s most successful, beloved athletes takes many of the same steps that they do to meet their mental health needs.
Children need role models and advocates, as the stigma surrounding mental health disorders can contribute to a sense of isolation and feelings of being different from peers. I have one question for those who question whether Biles is living up to her role-model status by (their words) quitting: Who better to model health behaviors than an Olympic hero?
The need for mental health role models has always been there. Roughly 1 in 6 children between the ages of 2 and 8 have a diagnosable mental health or behavioral health disorder. This rate increases as children age.
The pandemic exacerbated existing mental health challenges and created new ones. In its early months, pediatric emergency-room visits for psychiatric reasons soared as families coped with ever-evolving restrictions, changes in school formats, and separation from peers.
Children are watching these Olympics after a challenging year. When Biles prioritized her mental health over athletic performance, she normalized this for millions of families. She showed young fans it is OK to put their needs first and speak up when they need help.
The response of her coaches and teammates — to honor her wishes and provide needed support — was equally important for families to see. Throughout the pandemic, clinicians around the country have focused on helping children and adolescents foster resilience in the face of change. Biles and her teammates have provided a very public, powerful example of how we can communicate our needs.
The signature Olympic moment I’ve carried through life is one of self-sacrifice and stoicism. Biles and her teammates gave us a new kind of signature Olympic moment: one that honors well-being, self-care, and honest communication. And they won the (tweeted) support of Kerri Strug too.
I hope that there are young gymnasts at summer camps this week who are talking about this with their coaches and teammates, and that some of them write school reports about it.
I hope the moment — and everything it represents — stays with them for years to come.
Katharine Wenocur is a licensed clinical social worker who coordinates the Child Trauma and Play Therapy concentration within Thomas Jefferson University’s Community and Trauma Counseling program.