This week Time magazine named seven-time Olympic medalist, and 19-time world champion, Simone Arianne Biles as the 2021 athlete of the year. With a combined total of 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, Biles is the Greatest Of All Time. She also has four skills named after her.
Simply put, the woman is incredible. She is also a sexual assault survivor and mental health advocate.
2021 was supposed to be the Hollywood storybook ending to the greatest gymnastics career ever. The Tokyo Olympics were postponed due to COVID-19, which meant Biles and other Olympic athletes had an extra long training cycle.
No matter, five gold medals were what every prognosticator had etched in stone for Biles. Gold in the all-around, vault, balance beam, floor exercise and team competition. But something happened while Biles was high in the air off the vault in Tokyo.
The normally locked-in and ready to stick the landing gymnast wasn’t connected. She would later reveal that she had the “twisties.” A disconnect that left her unsure of her landing and where she was in relation to the ground.
Biles’ routines launch her higher off the ground and with more rotations and twists than any gymnast in history. So, you could see how the “twisties” would be a problem.
She pulled out of all individual finals except for the balance beam, and she withdrew from the team competition as well.
Maybe it was the extra year of training in an already grueling Olympic cycle, aided by a pandemic that changed the way every human being was able to interact. Maybe it was the public revelation in 2018 that she was sexually abused by USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, and everything that comes with it.
Maybe it was everything.
It was clear Biles needed a break, and she took it. It just happened to be in the Olympics, the biggest sports stage in the world. But that shouldn’t matter.
Biles, like tennis champion Naomi Osaka, fellow Olympian Michael Phelps and NBA champion Kevin Love have all spoken up about the need to take care of their mental health. The pressures world-class athletes experience are unlike anything else.
They put their bodies through unimaginable physical stress to be the best and they spend countless hours making sure their bodies can operate at peak levels. The same is true for the mind. If the mind isn’t also ready for peak levels, you’ve got no shot.
An athlete admitting that they aren’t right mentally to perform isn’t weakness. It’s strength.
Still, there were critics who brought up all kinds of nonsensical “reasons” as to why Biles is weak, a quitter, and not strong enough etc.
“If I were going to quit, I had other opportunities to quit,” she says. “There is so much I’ve gone through in this sport, and I should have quit over all that—not at the Olympics. It makes no sense.”
It’s safe to assume most of the critiques were from individuals who don’t know the first thing about athletic competition, let alone at the highest levels.
Her teammates though supported her during that difficult time.
“We all knew we had to continue not without her, but for her,” says Sunisa Lee, who stepped up to win the all-around gold in Tokyo. “What Simone did changed the way we view our well-being, 100%. It showed us that we are more than the sport, that we are human beings who also can have days that are hard. It really humanized us.”
There is no doubt some will disagree with Biles’ selection as athlete of the year. None of their “reasons” will be grounded in sound logic. They’ll instead be grounded in some archaic, antiquated, beliefs about sports, competition, toughness and life.
Luckily we have evolved as human beings, and no longer need to live life or operate under those premises. We no longer live in caves and use rocks as tools. As the species has evolved, so too should our collective attitudes about mental health.
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