TW: this article mentions of sexual abuse, in particular the abuses carried out by Larry Nassar against gymnasts.
Simone Biles deserves a gold medal in courage.
When she stepped away from the Olympics all-around event and decided not to compete, that took a huge amount of guts. But it’s no surprise she’s become a pro at being brave in the face of overwhelming stress. She’s had to, given her past. As the last gymnast abused by Larry Nassar (the prior doctor for the United States women’s national gymnastics) team still performing, she has been forced to deal with her ongoing personal trauma in front of the media.
When the word came that “medical issues” were the reasons for her withdrawal, most people assumed them to be physical—an injury to her body, perhaps. That it takes society a beat or two to realize that mental health concerns are equally important, and also a potential medical issue, says something about how far we still have to go when it comes to awareness and compassion.
As a society, we don’t fully understand it or get it when top-notch athletes we idolize turn out to be all too human. We hold their bodies and their brains to unrealistic expectations we would never dream of placing on ourselves.
But here’s the thing. Athletes like Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka, who has also been in the news recently for prioritizing her mental health, are not simply machines who train for four years to win medals. They don’t exist simply for our viewing pleasure and sense of national pride.
Yes, they are incredibly gifted at sports and that makes them special, but that doesn’t mean they can’t suffer from mental illness or push past their emotional bandwidth, just like the rest of us. They are not immune to anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder or ADHD just because they win world tournaments.
All the sponsorships and stardom and money in the universe won’t protect you from a mental breakdown.
And when you’re a female athlete, you are also held to an even higher impossible standard of perfection by society. If you dare to stand up for yourself or challenge the system, you’re labelled “angry” or “difficult,” just like Serena Williams was when she questioned the calls the umpire was making in that now-infamous tennis match that the male-dominated media made out was all about a “meltdown.”
If you’re Simone Biles, on the other hand, and you decide to prioritize your whole health in fear of jeopardizing part of it, it makes you ripe for derogatory slurs like “wimp” and “loser.” Or statements that “you just can’t handle it,” or that “you shouldn’t let down your country like that.”
What some people don’t realize is that after her withdrawal from the team event, Simone said she had been struggling with the sudden onset of her loss of air awareness, also known as the “twisties”—which can be extremely dangerous if you don’t have control over your body or how you land. This mental block was another reason she felt she had to sit out. I cannot fathom the stress of competing in the Olympics under the weight of so much expectation. And let’s not forget about the long-term effect speaking up about her abuse has undoubtedly had on her mental health.
There have also been some reports and rumors that Simone’s decision to sit out is somehow related to amphetamine withdrawal/untreated ADHD after she wasn’t allowed to bring her medication to Japan, but a Tokyo 2020 exemption allowed this for athletes, so there is no evidence to corroborate this. She has already publicly addressed her ADHD diagnosis in the past, and said she’s taken medication since she was a child to manage her symptoms.
“Having ADHD, and taking medicine for it is nothing to be ashamed of,” Biles tweeted at the time. “Nothing that I’m afraid to let people know.”
Living with bipolar II disorder and anxiety means I have to take extra precautions in my day-to-day life. I go to therapy, I take medications. I make time for self care. In short, I do everything I possibly can to manage it and function to the best of my ability, but there are times when all that is not enough.
My own mental health issues (combined with chronic pain) have also directly impacted my participation in life—especially the workforce. My endometriosis and fibromyalgia mean I’m not able to commute to a full-time job every day. My mental stress and physical discomfort prevent that.
Instead, I work remotely, on a part-time basis, always scrambling to bring in enough money. It’s not easy, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. Are there days I feel demoralized and almost defective by the knock-on effects of my chronic health issues? Yes. Am I trying to practice radical self-love and acceptance and make the best of my situation, as-is? Also yes. But it’s a constant work in progress.
The thing about mental illness in particular is that it’s sneaky. It can catch you unawares when you least expect it—like during a pivotal moment of your life.
I wish Simone whatever it takes to make her feel better. I’m also heartened to hear that fellow athlete Naomi Osaka inspired her to gather the strength she needed to do what was best for herself, first and foremost.
If she isn’t already, I hope in time that she will be proud that she stuck up for herself and spoke out. On a broader scale, I hope it also sends a message to her fellow female athletes—and everyone who knows not of what they speak—that mental health is no joke. It affects all of us.
Imagine the huge bravery and vulnerability it took to be open about it on a world stage, in front of the international press. Knowing the derision and heat she was going to take for daring to be honest and authentic. My heart goes out to her, but I’m so proud of her for putting her health first. She’s a role model in a whole new way now.
It’s wonderful to see mental health be in the forefront of so many conversations these days about athletes. They are finally being treated like human beings in control of their own bodies. Because if you don’t have your mental health, you don’t have your health. Period.
Simone realised her mental health was way more important than getting another medal, and we should too. It’s long overdue.
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