Superstar American gymnast Simone Biles is used to making headlines for her athletic exploits.
But she has dominated the headlines at the Tokyo Olympics Tuesday for a completely different reason.
Arguably the greatest gymnast in the history of the sport, the 24-year-old native of Columbus, Ohio, withdrew from the women’s gymnastics team final for what was initially described as a medical issue.
It turns out, that medical issue is her mental health.
After the event, in which the favoured U.S. team settled for the silver and watched the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) win the gold medal, Biles said she felt physically fine, but mentally, not so much.
“I have to focus on my mental health,” Biles said in a news conference after the event. “I just think mental health is more prevalent in sports right now. We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do…. We’re not just athletes, we’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.”
The biggest name in her sport says she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders and the pressure of living up to her past performances has taken a toll on her mentally.
“I didn’t want to go into any of the other events second-guessing myself,” said Biles. “So, I thought it would be better if I took a step back and let these girls go out there and do their job.”
It affected her in practice and during her performance in Tokyo on Tuesday and Biles ultimately pulled the chute, claiming that her mental game just wasn’t where it should be.
“It’s very uncharacteristic of me,” said Biles. “It just sucks that it happens here at the Olympic Games than have it happen at any other time. But, you know, with the year that it’s been, I’m really not surprised.”
Critics might have the urge to call Biles soft and the face of a new generation of athletes who can’t handle the pressure of the big moment.
I don’t subscribe to that thought process, not for a second.
It takes an immense amount of mental toughness to become an Olympic and world champion, a mountain she has already conquered and has done with humility and grace.
Biles wasn’t in the right frame of mind to compete up to her own expectations, plain and simple, and put her team ahead of herself.
It should not be a knock against her; instead, Biles should be recognized for acknowledging her insecurity and trusting her teammates to carry the proverbial torch.
Rick Zamperin is the assistant program, news and senior sports director at Global News Radio 900 CHML.