We are flipping proud of Simone Biles

Biles’s decision to step down in the Tokyo Olympics was a sign of strength and hope for mental health advocates

Emily DiSalvo and Samantha Simon

When the greatest gymnast of all time walked away from the mat, not because of her physical health, but because of her mental health, she made a difference.

For people around the world struggling with mental health issues, seeing Simone Biles prioritize her mental wellness over athletic pressures is a sign of hope. 

Biles set an example that is unfortunately uncommon to see – a Black woman putting her own needs and mental health first.

Our capitalist society has dangerously set us up to believe that work comes before health. What’s backwards about this idea is that good health, including mental health, is the foundation of the ability to work.

People are not machines.

US Gymnastics announced on Sunday that Simone Biles has withdrawn from the floor exercise final (Photo from Yahoo Sports/Twitter)

In far too many instances, stepping away from a job, an academic expectation or even the Olympics in the name of one’s mental health is seen as giving up. Prioritizing one’s mental health should not be seen as a weakness but rather as a sign of strength and a refusal to tolerate something that is detrimental to one’s own well-being.

As students who struggle with mental health, the worst feeling is being in a mental rut, yet feeling the pressure to work to the brink of exhaustion just to hand in an assignment, make it to a club meeting or even attend a social event.

When something that is supposed to be enjoyable begins to feel like a chore, or worse, something that will worsen mental wellness, there is a problem.

Mental health is often misconstrued because it isn’t tangible. It’s not a broken bone or busted lip, meaning people aren’t aware of the challenges and hurting one may be facing. When Biles stepped down, people immediately assumed it was a physical injury. While nothing was outwardly wrong with her bones or muscles, she still faced a very real struggle.

The mind and body are separate but codependent. Shortly after stepping down, Biles said she had a bad case of the “twisties.” In other words, she lacked the spatial awareness in the air that she would normally have.

Her body is incapable of doing dangerous and intricate gymnastics routines unless her mind is along for the ride, and by stepping down she showed a maturity and self-awareness that so many people lack.

Humans are not built to carry the weight of the world, or in Biles’s case the heavy weight of representing our complicated nation, at a worldwide competition. She has nothing to prove to anyone — the whole world already knows about her skills — yet the pressure of being the best of the best is no easy burden to bear.

The media paints Biles as an unstoppable force of nature — a superhuman gymnast — before they consider her as a 24-year-old woman. While we don’t know if Biles has a diagnosable mental illness, it is no surprise that the pressures of the competition and living up to expectations caused a stressful reaction in her mind.

If her mind isn’t in it, not only is she miserable, but her risk of injury also increases. Expecting Biles to sacrifice her safety for something she isn’t in the mental state to do is unreasonable.

“She’s a 24-year-old woman, survivor of sexual abuse and record-breaking Olympic gymnast. The last thing she is is a quitter””

— Emily DiSalvo and Samantha Simon

On top of the stress of competition, consider that members of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, including Biles, have been abused for years.

Larry Nassar, the convicted sex offender and former doctor for the U.S. gymnastic team, who sexually abused Biles and thousands of other athletes, is one of the most infamous cases. This abuse was kept under wraps for decades.

Biles is the last one of the publicly known Nassar survivors to be on the Olympic team, and in an interview with Hota Kotb, she said she remained on the team in order to reassure the younger generations that the sport is worth sticking with.

“I’m going to go out there and represent the U.S.A., represent World Champions Centre, and represent Black and brown girls over the world,” she said in a telephone interview with the New York Times. “At the end of the day, I’m not representing U.S.A. Gymnastics.”

The general public doesn’t know what could be going on behind closed doors, whether it be in Biles’s personal life or on her team. We don’t need to know. What we do know is that her decision to step down was personal and powerful.

She’s a 24-year-old woman, survivor of sexual abuse and record-breaking Olympic gymnast. The last thing she is is a “quitter.”

And yet so many people on social media had the nerve to say her decision to step down was “selfish” and a poor representation of our country.

We (Emily and Samantha), however, are more proud of America after Simone’s decision than before. America has never been a country that has prioritized taking breaks or openly discussing mental health.

Writing an email to a professor asking to miss class because of a mental health reason seems about as impossible as asking to miss class to go to a concert. Biles’s actions gave us hope that the tides may be turning. If a decorated Olympic athlete can do it on a world stage, we can do it too, here in our classrooms, our social commitments and our workplaces.

Biles has been a hero to so many people for her athletic prowess and mental strength in the face of adversity. Now, she is also a hero to those who struggle with mental health.

Even if you are not struggling with a mental health diagnosis, there is a lesson to be learned from Biles. If you need a break — even if you are not physically sick — take one. Your body and mind will thank you.