After the 2016 Rio Olympics, Simone Biles became the most recent face of gymnastics, and became the most decorated gymnast in history. This year at the Tokyo Olympics, 24-year-old Biles was expected to continue that streak, but unexpectedly withdrew after stumbling in the qualifiers. Everyone was filled with questions, like why the sudden withdrawal, and would Simone continue to keep her place as the best of the best after backing off?
The US team continued to win medals even after Biles’ withdrawal, including their silver in the team all-around final, and then Suni Lee winning gold on the individual all-around. For a moment, Suni Lee seemed to replace Simone as the face of US gymnastics, and the Olympics. Though Suni Lee won gold, the headlines continued to focus on Simone.
Simone stated she’d been struggling with mental health, and later revealed a death had happened in the family. “Two days ago my aunt unexpectedly passed, and that was something I wasn’t expecting to happen at the Olympic Games either, so at the end of the day, you have to be a little bit more mindful of what you say online, because you have no idea of what these athletes are going through as well as (in) their sports.”
Previously, she had stated her withdrawal was due to a medical issue and a case of ‘the twisties’, when gymnasts lose track of their placement in the air during several twists and turns. “It’s honestly petrifying trying to do a skill but not having your mind and body in sync. 10/10 do not recommend.” When she admitted that her stumble created a loss of confidence, and she withdrew due to mental health issues, Biles made more news than winning a medal ever did.
Simone has spoken about mental health before. She and her brother were raised by their grandparents, because her mother struggled with substance abuse. Biles’ brother was arrested and then acquitted for murder. Not long before that, she became another face of the #MeToo movement, having been sexually assaulted by former US Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar. Biles statements drew plenty of support from others, her fans, other athletes who’ve struggled with mental health ( Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps), and celebrities. Simone gave just as much support back to her teammates, cheering loudly from the side as they competed from Tokyo. Simone’s actions have been the latest and possibly biggest event in the continuing fight to reverse the stigma on mental health.
Simone returned to compete on the beam at the last minute, winning her second Olympic bronze in the event on August 3rd. To her, it was no less of a success than any of her golds. On NBC’s ‘TODAY’ show, Biles spoke about her comeback. “It means more than all of the golds because I pushed through so much the last five years and the last week while I’ve been here.” Her statement, along with the continuing press, have made it clear that mental health matters more than a medal.