September 30, 2023

Simone Biles: Mind and Body

By: Roy Douglas Malonson

Is a gold medal around the neck worth more than your soul? Your sanity? Your overall health and wellness? That’s the debate happening around the world right now when a brave young woman from the Houston area  – who is known as the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Times) in women’s gymnastics – basically took a stand and said – in so many ways – “this ain’t worth it,” and walked away from what others dare to dream.  Many White folks are thinking “how dare she?” while many Black folks are thinking it’s about damn time!”

Perhaps the most shocking thing happening during the Tokyo 2021 Olympics was Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from the remainder of the team competitions after landing an awkward vault. What was even more shocking was Biles’ decision to withdraw from the individual all-around competition as well.

What would your reaction be if Biles were unable to compete at the team competition or individual because of her physical health? It would be disappointing, but overall, it would be accepted because there’s no way she would be able to compete at her best while injured, right? After all, performing on something like a sprained ankle could potentially lead to more damage.

So, with that in mind, what is your reaction to the fact that Biles withdrew from the team and individual competitions because of her mental health? Is there still the same level of understanding? Do you believe she could compete at her best while mentally injured? Think about it.

This generation of athletes, specifically Black athletes like Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka, are unveiling the many challenges athletes face when dealing with mental health issues. Biles’ decision led to an uproar from critics (who couldn’t do a cartwheel) claiming that “sure it’s hard, but you just have to tough it out.”

Mental injuries or illnesses are not treated or perceived the same as physical illnesses, even when an unhealthy mental state can have a long-lasting and, sometimes deadly, effect on a person.

What critics also fail to realize is that Biles’ withdrawal could have potentially saved her life. Can you imagine having a panic attack in mid-air? Biles is no normal athlete, any doubt or lack of concentration while performing her highly dangerous stunts could easily result in severe injuries or worse.

Who will ever forget when young gymnast Kerri Strug injured her ankle while performing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta? She had a somewhat troublesome landing for her first vault, clearly injuring her ankle.  Despite that, in order for her team to win gold, she had to do it again, At all costs.

Famous gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi told Strug to vault again. Instead of caring about her heath,it seemed he cared about the gold medal. He “encouraged,” more so “demanded” that she push through.

“We got to go one more time,” Karolyi said. “Shake it out.”

“Do I have to do this again?” Strug asked.

“Can you, can you?” Karolyi asked.

“I don’t know yet. I will do it. I will, I will,” she said.

She ran full force again, and this time, “heroically” stuck the landing. The team won. Karolyi carried her off – he with a huge grin and she with tears (of likely pain) in her eyes.

To others, it may have appeared she rose to the occasion, but if you look closer to it, she could have been the victim of abuse at the hands of her coach – or the sports industry overall.

The injury forced Strug’s retirement at 18 years old.  After seeing Biles, Strug sent messages of support.

“Sending love to you,” Strug posted on social media. She went on to tweet congratulations to Team USA gymnastics, saying she has “great respect” for their “hard work and support for each other.”

More and more athletes are speaking up in support of Biles, with elite former Olympians like Michael Phelps showing his support and sharing his encounters with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts while competing.

Biles’ actions are not only removing stigmas about athletes and mental health, they are also removing stigmas about mental illness in everyday people.

According to statistics from John Hopkins, 1 in 4 adults experience a diagnosable mental illness. That can be anyone, your relatives, friends, family, or co-workers. Many people are more likely to ask for help for physical injuries instead of mental ones because of the stigmas surrounding mental illness.

It’s time for America to put mental health on a pedestal. Physical injuries can heal over time, but mental injuries are so much more complex. It takes global superstars like Biles to lead by example by prioritizing their mental health to raise awareness of the issue, but it also takes everyday people like us to be open about mental illness in our communities.

Biles proves once again that she is the G.O.A.T, not just because of her bravery in defying gravity in the gym, but also her bravery in sticking up for herself on a world stage where the entire country is on her shoulders.

“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human, too,” Biles said. “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”


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