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To the People Criticizing Simone Biles for Prioritizing Her Mental Health

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This past week, I’ve been glued to the Olympics. My favorite Olympic sport has always been gymnastics, and that has generated one of the biggest news stories of the Games so far after Simone Biles, unarguably one of the most successful gymnasts of all time, pulled out of the team final after one routine.

Until this Olympics, Simone looked unstoppable. She already has four gold medals from the Rio 2016 Olympics, as well as 19 golds from various World Championships. She needed four more medals to become the most decorated gymnast of all time, and it seemed a foregone conclusion she would achieve this accolade. Previews of the team final talked about who would finish second behind the USA, and previews of the all-around final focused on who would come second after her. But when the Olympics started, we saw Simone was not her usual self. She was shaky in qualifications, although still managed to get the highest all-around score. Afterward, she posted on Instagram she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders. It was a side we had not seen from her before.

She started the team final, but messed up her vault, only doing 1.5 twists instead of the 2.5 twists she had planned — one of the most difficult vaults in the world. She scored 13.7, which was her lowest ever score in Olympic competition. Afterward, it was obvious something was up. She looked rattled, and immediately left the arena with her coach. She soon came back, but we then saw her talking to her teammates, and shortly afterward it was announced she had withdrawn entirely from the team final due to a “medical issue.”

That medical issue, we learned later, was a mental health problem, not a physical one. Simone spoke honestly, saying she was not feeling like herself and she had just felt like she couldn’t continue. She said she had an anxiety attack a few hours before the competition, being unable to sleep. She’d never felt like that before.

The news drew a lot of attention, both positive and negative. Many other people both in and out of the sports industry came along in support of her, saying how brave she was to prioritize her mental health. But there were also plenty of people slating her for being a “quitter” and for letting her team down (they were beaten to first place for the first time in years by the Russian Olympic Committee). “She should have been able to handle the pressure,” they said. As if being a world-famous athlete makes you immune to mental health issues.

Anyone can struggle with mental illness. Simone said later she has been in therapy, trying to come to terms with the abuse she had endured from team doctor Larry Nassar as she was growing up. Imagine the pressure of dealing with all that as well as being the most recognized gymnast around the world, and always being expected to succeed. It was probably no wonder she was struggling.

I am an ex-gymnast myself. Not the same type of gymnastics as Simone — I participated in sports acrobatics, which involved pair work where I did handstands on my partner’s hands and things like that. I started at the young age of 4, and for a while, gymnastics was an important of my life. I did OK, I have several medals from competitions, and was doing some really difficult skills. Perhaps I could have made something of it if I’d carried on. But I quit when I was 11.

By that time, my family had moved away from the gym I belonged to. I carried on going to training, with my family driving me half an hour each way several times a week. But when I got to 11, my gymnastics partner at the time left to have a baby. When the coaches started to talk about partnering me with someone new, I decided I didn’t want to continue.

I struggled with mental health problems in my childhood and teenage years, which would have made carrying on difficult anyway. As it was, I was always much better in practice sessions. When it got to competitions, I’d get incredibly anxious and always mess something up. Social anxiety afflicted me after I moved house at the age of 13, and that would have made it difficult to bond with a new partner. In sports acrobatics, the bond with your partner is one of the most important things. When I was 16 or 17, I also began to struggle with anorexia, which would have made gymnastics difficult, as I would not have been strong enough. Back then, it was not a socially acceptable thing to talk about your mental health. I’m glad that things are changing.

I know the pressure to carry on. I’ve been signed off work for stress and mental health problems several times. My parents have not always been very understanding. My dad was a bit of a workaholic before he retired and I remember him telling me a few years ago, “I know it’s tempting to take time off when you’re not feeling at your best, but your employers might look badly upon you and fire you.” These words, which Simone is no doubt seeing on social media and in some newspapers, make things worse. I only got it from my family. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have that kind of criticism magnified many times when you are already feeling fragile.

Some of the detractors say if Simone knew she was having problems, then why go to Tokyo at all? Why not pull out earlier and give someone else the chance to take her place? But mental illness comes and goes. Maybe she felt well enough before the Games started. When I was signed off work last year, I initially resisted it when my manager suggested I might not be well enough to work. Our team was extremely short-staffed, and I didn’t want to let people down. I wanted to push myself for the team. But it got to the point where it was dangerous to my mental health to continue working. And that was just an office job. Imagine how much riskier it would be to try and “push through” and carry on if you’re performing dangerous gymnastics routines.

Apparently it’s called “the twisties,” the mental block which can cause you to lose where you are in the air and miss moves. I’d never heard of it before the Tokyo Olympics, but it sounds really scary. How dangerous it must be to perform when you’re struggling like this. Those who say she quit in a tantrum because she got a bad score need to realize it’s much more likely to have been the other way around. The bad score was the symptom, not the cause. It was the sign things were not as they should be in her head.

Those who criticize and mock her make me so angry. They ask why it’s OK for athletes to quit, that they should have more “mental toughness.” I say, why is it OK for people to go against what their heads and bodies are telling them, to risk themselves, just for a gold medal? I admire Simone for taking a step back and saying, “I’m not safe to continue.” World-famous athletes are people too, and they deserve our understanding and compassion when they struggle with mental health problems, as much as anyone does.

Things have gotten so much better in terms of mental health awareness since I started struggling some 25 years ago, and that is definitely something to celebrate. But we still have a long way to go as a society, and that is evident in the negative reactions I’ve been reading all week. We all need to realize we have a right to stand up for ourselves, to prioritize our mental health over work, whether that work is being in a chair answering emails all day, stacking shelves in a supermarket or performing breathtaking and dangerous gymnastics routines in the Olympics. I already admired Simone before all this, and now I admire her even more. We should all be applauding Simone for her bravery, not denigrating her.

Lead image via Simone Biles’ official Facebook

Originally published: August 5, 2021
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