How is anxiety any less crippling than a sprained joint? Is there any difference between a torn achilles and a panic attack when it’s time for an elite athlete to perform at a world-class level on a global stage?
We don’t know exactly what issues prompted Simone Biles to pull out of the team competition at the Olympics, but it wasn’t about her physical capacity — it was her mental health. When asked why she decided not to compete, it was “to focus on my well-being,” she said. “There’s more to life than just gymnastics.”
We are all curious as to what exactly is going on in her life that caused this disruption, but that’s her story — not ours. Which is the whole point: She has a right to draw boundaries around what she feels capable of.
“Once I came out here, I was like, ‘No, the mental is not there,’” she said. “I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to. … After the performance that I did, I didn’t want to go into the other events, so I thought I would take a step back.”
Let’s just take out a napkin and make a list of the things we know are stacking up on Simone’s shoulders. Keep in mind, these are only the public realities that we know about — there’s always more to the story behind the scenes.
- She’s the face of these Olympic games — both in America and beyond. Every commercial promotion for the Olympics features her face. The entire world is watching her expectantly.
- She was sexually abused by her team doctor, and developed depression as a result — using sleep as a coping mechanism. “Sleeping was like the closest thing to death for me at that point,” she said. “So I just slept all the time.”
- Already the most decorated American gymnast ever — and maybe the most dominant gymnast in history — she decided to compete this year because her presence would keep media pressure on USA Gymnastics to reform the practices that led to her abuse.
- The delay of these Olympic games because of the Covid-19 pandemic led to an additional year of training and anticipation — largely in isolation. And she’s competing without the support of her close friends and family, who couldn’t come to the games because of safety protocols.
- She’s a Black woman with a celebrity profile who is judged — professionally and culturally — by what she does with her body. In a culture struggling to fight sexism and racism, no one knows what kinds of pressures she faces just by getting out of bed every day to train, let alone compete as the greatest of all time.
It should be no surprise that Olympians are facing extra pressure this year. The games always winnow the elite, but in the pandemic, these athletes are even more isolated than they usually are. Their crazy training regimens already separate them from peers and limit socialization, and the pandemic has removed even the closest circles of support from them. Here’s the closest Simone got to her family after a rocky performance in the team qualifying round:
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) July 26, 2021
Athletes are increasingly starting to take a stand for their mental health. We’ve shared some of these journeys before — both Kevin Love and Kayla McBride have been candid about their basketball careers. And just this year, tennis star Naomi Osaka opted out of a French Open press conference because she was “not okay” — a move that came after Emma Raducanu withdrew from a fourth-round match at Wimbledon.
Naomi’s stance seems to have given Simone permission to take a similar stand when things didn’t feel right. Maybe, after some time to recover (maybe days, maybe years), Simone will be ready to share her story — but maybe not. She doesn’t owe us anything.
But she does owe herself respect, and that’s just what she’s claiming. She’s the one in charge of her body, mind, and heart — she’s the one responsible for caring for herself. No one else is going to do that for her; no one else is going to draw a line to say, “You shouldn’t do this today.”
So let’s remember what boundaries are: They are the lines we draw to define where we, and our responsibilities, begin and end. Elite athletes don’t draw these lines willy-nilly — not after sacrificing so much to get where they are. These are the very people who should be holding boundaries when they are not at 100 percent — if a performance goes wrong for Simone Biles, her life could be on the line.
Even though most of us mere mortals aren’t competing at the same level as our beloved Olympians, we all have the same duty to care for ourselves. Anything additional we can offer the world is a gift.