As I read news that Simone Biles had withdrawn from competing in the all-around competition in the Olympic Games, several thoughts came to mind. I felt admiration for this young, black, female athlete, who was prioritizing her mental health needs above pursuit of Olympic Gold. I’m thankful that she took a stand and brought more awareness to just how important mental health is.
The announcement about Biles came on the heels of other females athletes making similar decisions to prioritize their mental health. Naomi Osaka, the 23-year-old tennis star who is the world’s highest-paid female athlete, withdrew from the French Open after being fined for declining interviews to protect her mental wellbeing and Sha’Carri Richardson, a sprinter, was suspended from the USA Track and Field team for smoking cannabis while processing the grief of her biological mother’s death.
In the ensuing days, reading support for Simone Biles, I was pleased that so many people were championing her decision to focus on her emotional health. For a moment, I felt as though we rounded a corner in history, where mental health will be viewed at the level of importance that it should be. But there is so much more to take from this moment in history. We need to also consider the enormous pressure that young athletes face and at what cost. But for Simone Biles, the pressures were amplified.
Yes, Simone Biles had the pressure of being the GOAT (greatest gymnast of all time) on her small frame’s shoulders, but even more, she had the added pressure of being the face of a movement against sexual assault within the gymnastic community, and of being a black woman. The attention given to Simone over that past five years and her ability to captivate the world in understanding the trauma she and her teammates faced, seems to suggest that her duty moved beyond her fellow gymnastics to a broader community of survivors.
I hope that this strong, talented, black woman finds the peace and health that she deserves. I hope that other survivors find encouragement to take care of their emotional needs. I hope that people who are struggling with their mental health seek support and space to heal. I hope we can get to a place where Simone Biles would be seen as extraordinary for her talent, but ordinary for taking care of mental health.
Biles certainly has encouraged us to talk about mental health and not to simply “push through it.” I urge you to take her example and care of yourself, connect with others, and ask for help. We all need to prioritize our health.