Ahead of the biggest events in her sport, star gymnast Simone Biles has withdrawn from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics team and individual all-around gymnastics competitions in order to focus on her mental well-being. While it’s unclear whether she’ll participate in next week’s gymnastics event finals, many fellow gymnasts are focusing on the bigger picture: athletes’ mental — and physical — health.
“It’s just so much pressure,” fellow Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman told Today. “There’s only so much she can take. She’s human — sometimes people forget that.” Raisman said she was “devastated” to learn Biles had dropped out of the competition but was most concerned whether she is okay. “Simone is human,” Raisman reiterated. “She has pains like all of us, she has stress like all of us. It’s insane how much pressure is on her.”
That pressure rang true to other Olympic gymnasts, who understand the intense scrutiny Biles is under in Tokyo. “The whole globe is watching her,” Laurie Hernandez, who competed with Biles and Raisman on the U.S. gymnastics team at the 2016 Olympics, said on Today. “When something like this happens, there’s just immense pressure … this feeling of, ‘I don’t want to let my team down.’” Hernandez also emphasized that the success of the team shouldn’t be on Biles alone. “Having to put that much pressure on her to carry the team to gold — it’s not fair,” she said, adding, “At the end of the day, she is a human being. I’m really proud of her.”
Former gymnast Kerri Strug tweeted her support of Biles as well, writing that she was “sending love.” Strug knows firsthand the pressure of performing when your body isn’t up to it. The gold medalist is best known for landing her vault on an injured ankle during the 1996 Olympics. After hurting her ankle on her first run, Strug was pressured by coaches to complete her second run. Former U.S. Gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi reportedly told her, “Kerri, we need you to go one more time. We need you one more time for the gold.” Team U.S.A did win gold; afterwards, Strug had to be carried off the floor to Larry Nassar.
Strug wasn’t the only gymnast who emphasized that pushing yourself to the point of destruction shouldn’t be equated with strength or perseverance. Dominique Moceanu, who also competed on the 1996 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, shared a video of the moment she landed head-first on the beam, resulting in a tibial stress fracture during competition. “I competed in the Olympic floor final minutes later,” she wrote. “[Simone Biles’s] decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health—“a say” I NEVER felt I had as an Olympian.”
Everyone from other Olympic athletes to politicians to actors have expressed their support for Biles’s decision to step back. Tennis legend Billie Jean King said Biles showed “true leadership” by withdrawing from the competition. “Your health and peace matters,” U.S. Representative Cori Bush tweeted. “You’re reminding Black women that we can take the space we need for ourselves.” U.S. softball pitcher Cat Osterman said, “I commend her for stepping out and saying, ‘you know what, I can’t do this right now’ … People need to remember that athletes are human first.”
“We should be out here having fun and sometimes that’s not the case,” Biles said during a press conference after the gymnastics team finals. Later, she noted that Naomi Osaka in part inspired her decision to withdraw, and told press she hopes other athletes will feel inspired to “put mental health first.” She added, “It’s okay sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and a person that you really are.” Based on the reaction she’s gotten thus far, her prioritization of her mental health has already been an inspiration.