Simone Biles believes the mental health issues that forced her to withdraw from the Olympic team final and several individual events began before she got to Tokyo.
Athleta, one of Biles’ main sponsors, released a 6-minute video Monday of the gymnast candidly answering questions from her mother, Nellie, about what happened in Tokyo and the reaction to it. The video is on AthletaWell, the lifestyle brand’s health and wellness platform.
“I wouldn’t even say it started in Tokyo. I feel like it was probably a little bit deeper-rooted than that,” Biles said. “I think it was just the stress factor. It kind of built up over time, and my body and my mind just said no. But even I didn’t know I was going through it until it just happened.”Biles had been expected to be the face of the Tokyo Olympics, a favorite to win five gold medals after going unbeaten since 2013. But the rising anxiety created by the stress of those expectations manifested themselves in a case of the “twisties,” causing her to lose her sense of where she was in the air.Biles withdrew from the team competition after struggling to land a vault that is routine for her. She dropped out of the air one twist short on her Amanar, and barely landed on her feet.
“If I flipped you while spinning, you would not know where you are,” Biles told her mother.
“Correct,” Nellie Biles said.“That’s how I felt,” Biles responded.
Biles withdrew from the all-around, vault, uneven bar and floor exercise finals because her routines for those events all contained twisting elements. One of her floor passes alone requires her to twist three times while doing two flips.
In addition to working in a gym that had a foam pit, where she could do gymnastics without fear of serious injury, Biles said she talked a lot with her coaches as well as U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee sports psychologists. Biles was able to compete in the balance beam final, winning a bronze medal after switching to a different dismount that didn’t have any twists.
“It just sucks. Train five years, it doesn’t go the way you wanted,” Biles said. “But I know that I helped a lot of people and athletes speak out about mental health and saying no. Because I knew I couldn’t go out there and compete. I knew I was going to get hurt.”
Though some athletes had already started opening up about the importance of mental health and the intense pressure they’re under – Michael Phelps has made this his mission in retirement – Biles’ decision to withdraw from the Olympics elevated the conversation. Athletes in all sports expressed their support for her while sharing their own experiences, and general society began discussing with more seriousness the importance of it being OK to not be OK.
That meant a lot to her, Biles said, because it wasn’t the reaction she was expecting.“I obviously was expecting to feel, like, a lot of backlash and embarrassment,” she said. “But it’s the complete opposite. That’s the first time I felt human. Besides Simone Biles, I was Simone, and people kind of respected that.”
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Asked what advice she would have for others who are doubting themselves or struggling with mental health issues, Biles said the most important thing is to ask for help.
“I know it’s not easy, but it really is helpful,” she said. “And I know most of the time you’re scared you might feel dumb. But as I have learned over the years, it’s OK to ask for help.
“Just remember, you’re also a person,” she added. “I think even us as athletes tend to forget that because we’re only known as athletes and not valued as human beings. But it’s important to keep in contact with the human side of you.”