Last summer, strangers started coming up to Simone Biles on the street to congratulate her — not for racking up gold medals, per usual, but for prioritizing her mental health over competing. During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the four-time gold medal gymnast decided to drop out of the competition early after experiencing an immense amount of stress. Nearly a year later, she’s confident she made the right decision.
“Walking away from the Olympic Games was a win in itself. I know a lot of people thought I failed because they expected me to go out with five or six medals, but walking out of it was my biggest win,” Biles said in conversation with Brené Brown at the Simmons Leadership Conference, according to People. After winning bronze on the balance beam, in agreement with Team USA’s sports on-staff psychologist, Biles opted out from four of the five finals. The team still went on to win silver. “I had to put myself into consideration for one of the first times throughout my career. Most of the time, I’ve always put myself on the back burner, because I’ve always cared and thought about everybody else before myself,” she said.
Biles was experiencing a common phenomenon among gymnasts known as the “twisties,” which can be triggered by stress and makes an athlete feel lost in the air while doing tricks they’ve done a thousand times. She said her “mind and body were not in sync” and the only thing to do to avoid hurting herself and risking Team USA’s success was to walk away. “That would be so selfish of me to put the team’s medal contention in jeopardy, put myself in jeopardy,” she said. “I had to be like, ‘Simone, it’s okay. It’s not the end of the world, it’s just sports. If you walk away from this and you still are walking, that’s a win in your book.’” Now she can reflect on the decision and acknowledge it as “probably the most courageous I’ve ever been.”
With the world watching, Biles said she had no choice but to “put myself first, listen to my mind and body, what my heart was telling me to do. I had to put my pride aside and say, ‘Okay, this isn’t going to work.’” The fact that she was quarantined in her room during the Olympics and her parents weren’t able to be there with her, despite having been to every single one of her competitions since she was a child, made the experience feel particularly isolating at the time. “For the world to expect some of these athletes to go above and beyond when we’re all going through the same thing and trying to survive a pandemic was really strange for me mentally,” she said.
Biles spoke with NBC Sports shortly after she withdrew from the competition to talk about why she made the decision not to compete and how she hoped it would open doors for bigger conversations. “We’re not just athletes or entertainment, we’re human, too, and we have emotions and feelings and things that we’re working through behind the scenes that we don’t tell you guys about,” she said. “Put your mental health first, it doesn’t matter if you’re on the biggest stage. That’s more important than any medal you could win.”