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Biles scores gold for struggling youths

Simone Biles, known as America's greatest female gymnast,

Simone Biles, known as America's greatest female gymnast, withdrew from the gymnastics final at the Tokyo Olympics. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/LOIC VENANCE

She quit.

She upped and walked away. And at the Olympics no less.

No one expected it. Not even Simone Biles, evidently. But there in Tokyo, America’s greatest female gymnast, arguably of all time, did the unthinkable: she chose to take care of herself over striving for U.S. gold, as tens of millions around the globe watched.

The audacity of it.

To many, Biles’ action is unthinkable. What happened to stick-to-it-iveness, to determination and grit, they will ask, as though the 24-year-old world champion hasn’t constantly demonstrated those qualities throughout her career. How could she be so selfish?

Others are saying, "Brava, madame; you made the courageous choice under unimaginable pressure." In doing so, I’d add, Biles has done far more for younger generations that any gold medal could have delivered. She’s shown them it’s OK to breathe when one really needs to, even at the XXXII Olympiad.

Biles’ generation is like no other in history. It’s certainly unlike mine. We grew up in a world that seemed like it couldn’t possibly move faster, grow more commercialized or be more stressful. But by today’s standards, that pre-internet world operated at a snail’s pace. Its pressures were a stroll in the park — and still many of us struggled with mental health challenges that too often went untreated.

Young people today are raised in a whirlwind of information and with expectations impossible to realize. Social media platforms effectively force youngsters, beginning at the age of 7, 8 or 9, in many cases, to manufacture elaborate personal public relations campaigns showing followers how perfect their lives are, when they’re really not. Whose is?

I once brought a daughter and friend to a beach at sunrise. They stood with their backs to the unfolding scene so they could take selfies for Instagram. I had to take away their phones and force them to sit and watch the marvel of a Florida daybreak. It happened under protest.

I think the challenges of social media are particularly acute for girls, but I say that as a father of three daughters. But the parents of boys see it, too. When I grew up boys played outdoor games from sunup to sundown. Now they look at their computer screens.

It’s not just the internet. Kids who play organized sports are asked to do too much. Summers are cut short because practices begin in August. A children’s swim team in my area holds practices seven days a week. Really?

I recall, in particular, bringing my youngest daughter to gymnastics classes when she was 5 or 6. All the instructors were Russian. I thought it would be fun. From day one, you could see the kids being eyed for talent. Thank God my daughter had little.

This is the world that Simone Biles grew up in. It’s the world all our children are growing up in, and youth mental health statistics show the price they’re paying for it. When do we say "enough!"

Of all the comments I read about Biles’ decision to put her mental health before her sport, my favorite came from a Tweeter called @HeatherTDay.

"What if we get to where we are going faster. By slowing down?," she wrote.

To that I say "Amen."

Opinions expressed by William F. B. O’Reilly, a consultant to Republicans, are his own.

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