Team USA fans had high expectations for Simone Biles going into the Tokyo Olympics this summer. After all, she was women’s gymnastics team captain, she was the returning champ after picking up four gold medals in Rio five years earlier and she remains the most-decorated athlete competing in the sport.
But Biles is more than athlete. She’s a human being, with all the vulnerabilities that come with that.
It’s a fact that fans were reminded of when the woman known as the GOAT stepped away from several Olympic events as she struggled to maintain her physical performance in the wake of mounting emotional stresses.
And in a new interview, the 24-year-old explains that was the first time she ever felt as though she was viewed as a normal person.
“Over the years, obviously since I’ve been so dominant, everybody supported the gymnastics and praised me for what I’ve done in the gym — and not really outside (of the gym),” she said in a Q&A with her mother, Nellie Biles, filmed for Athleta’s new digital community, AthletaWell.
So when she experienced what gymnasts refer to as “the twisties,” a state in which one loses awareness of their mid-air position during routines, and then spoke out about her mental health amid the Games, she felt few could understand her — at first.
“I spoke to my coaches a lot,” she recalled. “I had conversations with Team USA’s sports psychologists. Justin Bieber reached out and messaged me, so did Demi Lovato, because it’s different and nobody kind of understands the platform that we’re on. ... We’re not seen as normal people walking around.”
But when she stepped back from the competition at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in July, she discovered that while she expected to face “a lot of backlash and embarrassment,” something else happened.
“It’s (been) the complete opposite,” she said.
Those people who only viewed her as an elite athlete before suddenly related to the person who was speaking up about her mental health.
“That’s the first time I felt human,” Biles told her mother. “Like, besides Simone Biles, I was Simone and people kind of respected that.”
The more they listened to her, the more there was to respect. Biles didn’t simply withdraw from the Olympics finals in multiple events as an individual act in her own best interest — though that would have been enough. Even in withdrawing, she was a team player.
“I definitely had the team in my best interest, and that’s why I decided to pull out,” she said. “I didn’t want to potentially lose a medal spot for them, because the girls were more than prepared to go in and to do their job, which they did.”
And others benefited from Biles putting the unplanned part of her Olympic experience in the spotlight.
“My body and my mind just said no,” she explained. “Even I didn’t know what I was going through it, until it just happened. ... Train five years and it doesn’t go the way you wanted. But I know that I helped a lot of people and athletes speak out about mental health and saying no.”