Mental health over medals, Olympic gymnast teaches powerful lesson

Anna Rasgorshek, age 7

Opinion by AnnaRasgorshek 

Content warning: This story briefly mentions sexual abuse

Simone Biles left the Olympic floor after a scary case of the “twisties” on vault. 

“The twisties”—When your brain and body disconnect, you suddenly do not know where you are in mid-air.

The twisties are incredibly dangerous for gymnasts—especially Biles, who is performing at an inhumane level of difficulty. When you get lost in the air, you have no idea where you’re going to land: your feet, your back, or even your head. 

This risk was enough for her to pull out of team finals, and later she pulled out of every event except the beam finals, announcing that she needed to prioritize her mental health. In choosing not to compete, Biles’ teammates were able to find success in places they had not expected. She was expected to take gold in every event, and her withdrawal allowed teammate Sunisa Lee to win gold in the all-around competition, and teammate Jade Carey to win gold floor finals. Her absence in vault finals also allowed veteran MyKayla Skinner to step up and win silver, her first Olympic medal. Biles stayed and cheered her teammates and opponents on in every event, truly embodying the Olympic spirit.

Illustration of Sunisa Lee & Simone Biles

Despite this, many took to Twitter to call Biles un-American. 

After pulling out of the team finals, Biles was immediately compared to Olympic athlete and American hero Kerri Strug, who completed her final vault with an injured ankle in 1996. However, until recently, USA gymnastics (USAG) had a long history of prioritizing medals before an athlete’s mental and physical health. In the 2020 Netflix documentary “Athlete A,” former national champion, Jennifer Sey, talks about how Strug had no choice, and how gymnasts at the time were powerless. 

As someone who admired Strug as a child, seeing the vault from this point of view made me sick to my stomach. Knowing the USAG’s dark history made me worried for Biles, and left me wondering if once again, the organization would put a gold medal over someone’s safety. 

Athlete safety has never seemed to have been a real concern for USAG. In fact, the USAG swept sexual abuse of more than 265 gymnasts, including Biles herself, under the rug for years. Despite many complaints (the first being in 1997), Dr. Larry Nassar continued to work for the USAG until 2015. Biles opened up about this abuse in her Facebook Watch show: “Simone vs. Herself.” Simone talks about how she still has to recover from the abuse day-by-day, as she is the only survivor still competing for the USAG today. To me, that’s more impressive than all the medals alone. Allowing Biles to step down and prioritize herself was a step in the right direction for the organization.

Biles is not the first athlete to come forward with their struggles with mental health. Earlier this year, Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open with mental health issues. After dropping out, Osaka was fined $15,000. Soon after, she withdrew from Wimbledon to spend time with friends and family.  Both Biles and Osaka faced immediate backlash. Two of the greatest athletes in the world were labeled “weak” because of mental health issues. The stigma around mental health remains a problem in America today. Taking the time to step down and focus on mental health is incredibly impressive for anyone, especially athletes who have all eyes on them. While Osaka and Biles shined a light on athlete mental health issues this summer, the conversation is far from over. 

These days, athletes are expected to be perfect. Simone Biles gets bashed after a small mistake. Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams are berated for showing emotion on the court. Fans call for players to be traded after a missed opportunity on the court or the field. Every high and low of an athlete’s career is public, and every performance is put under a microscope. 

Athletes are not characters made to entertain us, athletes are human, too. In fact, the International Olympic Committee says that 35% of athletes struggle with mental health issues at some point in their careers. 

As someone who could never catch a touchdown, hit a home run, make a free throw, or even do a cartwheel—I know I have no place telling athletes what they should and should not do, especially when it comes to their mental health. I have taken plenty of mental health days in my life, why would I judge athletes for doing the same? Mental health is finally being taken as seriously as physical health, and I love seeing athletes leading the way.

Seeing big-name athletes like Biles begin to prioritize their mental health over entertaining us has made me prouder than the medals, awards and trophies ever could.

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