I'm not really watching the Olympics this year, but I do track what's going on. Today I followed the news that Simone Biles, arguably the best gymnast of our time (if not ever), had dropped out of the team competition for the Olympics, citing mental health concerns.
My favorite article is from NPR: Simone Biles Reminds Us That Even Superstars Feel the Pressure.
I enjoyed the focus on increased awareness of mental health in athletes, and an increased willingness to take a step back to preserve wellness of all kinds.
At first when Simone Biles changed into her warmups from her performance leotard, people thought she'd been injured physically in her vault showing where she dialed back the turns and seemed to falter on the landing. But, she made it clear later in the day that she was not physically injured.
She needed to step back and take care of her mental health, she said. She wasn't in the right headspace to compete, and wanted her team to succeed, and the pressure was getting to her in an unhealthy way.
She chose to duck out of competing due to pressure, prioritizing her mental health so that she did not find herself in a situation where she could become seriously injured. And then she spoke candidly and unapologetically about it.
I don't love that she is struggling, but I do love that she is a role model for not pushing through no matter what because it is harmful for body and mind. For making the choice that was right for her even though she knew that the public could and would see her as a quitter, as as someone who failed under pressure. (I avoided giving any clicks to articles that presented it that way, that gleefully showcased her face looking pained and didn't see her decision as a strength.)
This is the message that needs to be more visible. That if you are struggling and there is a possibility that continuing on could result in disaster (an injury that could end your athletic career, a mental breakdown, losing love for your passion), there is no shame in stepping away. In fact, it takes far more strength to step away in the face of possible backlash and do what's right for you, than to keep plowing forward.
I may be sensitive to Simone Biles' decision because I myself have made the choice to stop pursuing parenting, something that I had been hyperfocused on, although not before damage was done, because it was no longer healthy to continue with the toll it was taking on body and mind. And I had a paralyzing fear of being seen as a "quitter," of facing the backlash of people thinking I didn't try hard enough, I gave up too soon, and the myriad what-ifs that didn't take into account all of the trauma we had incurred in all the various processes we undertook.
It turns out Simone Biles is also dealing with trauma, and that played a part in her decision -- she was a survivor of the abuse perpetrated by the team doctor for USA Gymnastics and revealed her personal story in 2018. When the Tokyo Olympics were postponed due to COVID, it meant one more year of working with USA Gymnastics, and she hadn't wanted to continue that relationship longer than necessary. She is dealing with so much, not all of which is always known by those so quick to judge, so quick to salivate over the perceived fall of an amazing athlete (and unfortunately I'm sure racism plays no small part in that too). It's been wonderful to read about how supportive Simone's teammates and coaches have been, and the understanding that she's received by those some are saying she "let down." And I love that she gave credit to Naomi Osaka, the tennis phenom who also publicly stepped away from competition for her mental health, as someone who shined a light for her to make similar decisions. Women supporting women.
I have so much respect for Simone Biles. It must be so hard to be in the public eye and make these decisions, but I think for the sake of all the people who need to know that it is okay to step away when your health is on the line, that trauma and its impact on mental health are very real threats to well-being, and you can be successful but also make unpopular decisions because you are doing what's right for you.
I love what Simone Biles said after she withdrew:
"So, it's OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person you really are -- rather than just battle through it."
Yes. That. Let's give respect for those who are strong because they prioritize their health and walk away, and stop the the "never never never give up" cult of battling through no matter the cost.