Why Simone Biles Focusing On Her Mental Health Is a Win for Trauma Survivors
I have been enthralled with gymnastics my entire life. I can recall watching Mary Lou Retton in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with bated breath, amazed at how someone so tiny could be so powerful. I enrolled in gymnastics shortly after that but had a mishap during a front flip in which I almost broke my neck. That obviously ended my gymnastics dreams, but I’ve never lost interest in it. It’s literally one of the only sports I watch during the Olympics.
When the accusations of sexual abuse of gymnasts by USA Gymnastics (USAG) team doctor Larry Nassar came to light, I immediately became obsessed with the story. Having endured sexual abuse of a similar nature myself as a child, I was enraged by the failure of the USAG, coaches, local and federal authorities to investigate in a timely fashion. I watched the trials, listening to the brave testimony of each of the survivors in awe of their poise and articulate words. I have rewatched the sentencing speech by presiding judge Rosemarie Aquilina several times, have read every book and article about the case and continue to follow the ongoing debate as to what culpability, if any, the USAG and the Karolyi family had in failing to protect these gymnasts from ongoing abuse.
Obviously, you cannot be as engaged in this story without simultaneously being aware of everything Simone Biles has accomplished as both an elite athlete and a powerful advocate for her fellow survivors. In the Facebook Watch Original Docuseries “Simone Vs Herself,” Simone speaks candidly about how challenging her recovery from the trauma of sexual abuse has been. As the only remaining survivor still in the competition, she feels a responsibility to her fellow survivors to be their voice and to continue pushing the USAG to do better and be better in terms of how they treat their athletes. This responsibility is one of the reasons she cites for deciding to continue competing and in particular for deciding to stay in the game, so to speak, even though the Olympics was postponed for an entire year due to COVID-19.
In episode four — titled “What More Can I Say?” — Biles states that if she had to go back to training in the toxic environment that was the Karolyi Ranch, she’d “s*** herself.” She recalls everything that happened at what she terms “the fifth station” of therapy and how the girls had nobody to talk to about what was happening, and she herself was in denial that what occurred was actually abuse, something many sexual abuse survivors do. It’s easier to dismiss or minimize what happened than to acknowledge it and feel the pain and anger that comes with that recognition. In a particularly vulnerable scene of the episode, she recounts driving on a highway in Texas and having the “aha” moment of “that happened to me.” She called her mother and was crying so hard she had to pull off the road. Biles states that she was so depressed that she isolated herself to her room and slept all the time because sleeping was the closest thing to death to her and that felt easier than dealing with the abuse.
She goes on to discuss the disconnect for gymnasts between healing a physical injury, which usually takes four to six weeks, and healing trauma, which has no predictable time frame for healing. Biles notes that it’s OK to ask for help and that mental health is important for athletes to talk about. She also anecdotally mentions that she feels like waiting the extra year to compete is what affected her mental health the most. But her desire for perfection, focus and competitive spirit carried her through even when she struggled with being triggered by being in the gym training.
Biles reflects on the fact that she couldn’t allow her love of gymnastics to be affected by what happened. She didn’t blame herself or gymnastics and stated that since she couldn’t erase what happened, she would embrace it and try to find some kind of meaning in it. Still, she continued to struggle with getting out of her head and several clips show her coaches trying to encourage her to stop overthinking things.
All of this was perhaps a sign that the pressure of being the most decorated gymnast in history, who has accomplished feats that are so dangerous that nobody else can do them, and has had these moves named after them on top of the ongoing healing process from the trauma of her sexual abuse was beginning to be too much for even the greatest of all time (GOAT) to juggle. She may be a super human, but she is not superhuman. Just like many of us who have come forward with our abuse, there’s a sense with Simone of something broken in her brain because she couldn’t stop reliving what happened even though she had accepted that it wasn’t her fault.
But she also recognized the power she had to affect change. Her coming forward led directly to the Karolyi Ranch being shut down and she has found great healing in the ability to advocate for others and let them know they are not alone. But as many of us know, that advocacy can take a toll. Even the strongest of us reach a limit where no amount of physical strength can out-muscle the demons in our heads. During the final round of the Olympic trials, we saw Biles stumble on almost every event, seeming noticeably rattled. I don’t know if that was a sign that things were becoming too much, but I was not only not shocked that she withdrew from the Olympic competition, I was relieved and inspired.
I cannot imagine the pressure she felt not only to compete and win for her country but from the world at large putting her on a pedestal that continued to set the bar for her performance higher and higher. To be this kind of elite athlete is hard enough without simultaneously working on healing your own trauma and being the face of all of the survivors of the gymnastics community in such a public and often nasty world of social media. Recognizing that this was a recipe for disaster both mentally and potentially physically was an act of heroism and the ultimate lesson for us all in self-care and boundaries.
As someone who tends to function on “overachiever mode” by pushing herself to her limits constantly and never wanting to say no because I don’t like to disappoint others — to the detriment of my own mental and physical well-being — nothing could have been a more impactful message than Simone Biles pulling out of the competition. Simone Biles showed that quitting is in fact winning. She doesn’t owe anyone anything. She has given her whole life to this sport and it gave her lifelong trauma in return. Her maturity and wisdom to know her own limits and to listen to them is a quintessential lesson all trauma survivors could benefit from. In my eyes, Simone Biles is a hero and a legend. She will go down in history for not just being the greatest gymnast of all time, but for being a true leader and role model for survivors of sexual trauma and those with mental health struggles in general, showing why mental health is as important as physical health and how to truly care for both with grace and dignity. Bravo Simone. #GOATforever.
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