The greatest gymnast of all time may have accomplished her greatest feat.
By pulling out of the team competition at the Tokyo Olympics and then having the courage to later publicly and honestly explain why, Simone Biles has made a major contribution toward ending the stigma associated with mental health issues.
Biles, one of the biggest stars at the Games, shocked the sporting world on Tuesday when she withdrew after a disappointing first vault that included her missing a rotation and ended with her taking an enormous step on her landing. Her U.S. team, which had been heavily favored to win the gold, instead ended up with a silver. The Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) team instead won its first gold since 1992 in Barcelona.
While speculation at first pointed toward a physical injury, Biles later explained that she wasn’t in the right place mentally to perform the difficult skills she is known for. She went on to say she is struggling with being the greatest gymnast in history, and outside expectations were just too hard to combat.
"Physically, I feel good. I'm in shape," she said on the "Today" show following her exit. "Emotionally, it varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being head star isn't an easy feat."
No, it’s not, especially in this every-moment-is-scrutinized era of social media.
More and more, athletes are opening up about the pressure they feel mentally. Tennis star Naomi Osaka, who was upset Tuesday in the third round of Olympic play, skipped the last two tennis majors, citing mental health reasons. The Nets' Kyrie Irving took seven days away from the team in January, citing family and mental health concerns. Swimmer Michael Phelps has recently opened up about his struggles with depression.
Biles deserves credit for her transparency on the issue. Initially, Team USA announced that it was a medical issue that caused her to drop out. It would have been so much easier for her to just ride with that, to manufacture some ankle problem or other ailment that caused her to withdraw from the competition. That’s because physical pain is something we all understand.
Instead, Biles was much braver, joining her teammates in a news conference to explain why she had withdrawn from the competition. Biles said in her current state of mind, she thought her teammates had a better chance to win a medal without her. And, considering how far below her standards her vault was, she may have been right.
In the news conference, she encouraged other athletes to "put mental health first."
Biles received an outpouring of support from many on social media. Still, there were some — such as British media pundit Piers Morgan — who accused her of tarnishing her legacy as the sports GOAT and letting her team down.
The truth, of course, is more complicated than that. The U.S. team would not be where it is today if it weren’t for Biles, who has been an outspoken ambassador for her sport. In fact, it’s hard to overstate the pressure Biles, 24, has dealt with between the Rio Olympics, where she won four gold medals, and this one.
Biles bravely joined other gymnasts in taking down a sexual predator, Larry Nassar. Biles publicly acknowledged that she had been a victim of sexual abuse by the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, who was sentenced in 2018 to up to 175 years in prison. In a Facebook video earlier this month, Biles said she dealt with depression in the wake of acknowledging the abuse.
On Tuesday, Biles showed another kind of bravery. At the most inconvenient of moments, she prioritized her mental health. She showed the world that it’s OK to be human, that winning doesn’t have to be everything, that it’s OK to say that you are not OK.
You can add that to her legacy.