Simone Biles’ Strength Inspires on and off the Mats

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Photo courtesy of USA Today.

Top female athletes are making it clear that the rules of the game have changed. After decades of disproportionate pressures and inequalities, superstars like Simone Biles have decided to say “enough is enough.”

It’s no longer about having suffered abuse at the hands of monsters like Larry Nassar and being left to fend for themselves by American Olympic officials, but a decision that personal integrity and mental health come before all the gold in the world.

Simone Biles decided this week to withdraw from the team final after a rotation because she felt she was mentally unprepared. A day later, the U.S. gymnastics superstar withdrew from Thursday’s all-around competition to focus on her mental well-being, the Associated Press reported.

“We’ve had some conversations (and) she seems like she’s doing what’s best for her,” Sam Mikulak, one of her teammates, said. “It’s awesome to see that she’s gotten to go against the pressure of society and do what’s best for herself.”

When putting yourself first is the toughest decision

Last Monday, Biles was already sharing on social media the pressure she felt under, saying she felt the world’s weight on her shoulders. That feeling translated into a performance that left many concerned. Biles got lost in the air during the team finals and completed a twist and a half instead of two and a half.

“Once I came out here (to compete), I was like, ‘No mental is, not there so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself,'” Biles said following the medal ceremony.

What many don’t seem to understand, however, is that the superstar’s decision doesn’t necessarily have to do with depression or sadness. It means that her psychological state put her at significant physical risk, as Elle Reeve, a former gymnast herself, explained in a column for CNN.

If her brain didn’t adapt to what her body knows how to do, she could seriously injure herself.

“I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to,” Biles told reporters in Tokyo. “I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I’m also not having as much fun.”

Similarly, Biles described feeling a bit of “twisties,” a mysterious phenomenon in which, suddenly, a gymnast is no longer able to do a twisting skill she has done thousands of times before. As Reeve describes it, the athlete feels her body not cooperating, her brain loses track of where it is in the air, and she only realizes where the floor is when she hits it.

“Simply, your life is in danger when you’re doing gymnastics,” said Sean Melton, a former elite gymnast who dealt with the twisties throughout his career, to the Washington Post. “And then when you add this unknown of not being able to control your body while doing these extremely dangerous skills, it adds an extreme level of stress. And it’s terrifying, honestly, because you have no idea what is going to happen.”

This was one of the definitive signals for Biles in deciding to retire.

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

Support from a community that understands

Biles’ decision marks a milestone in the history of Olympic gymnastics, especially after terrible episodes such as when Elena Mukhina broke her neck doing the Thomas salto, or when Julissa Gomez, just 15 years old, was paralyzed shortly before the 1988 Olympics, dying three years later.

Although some critics drew the unfair parallel between Simone Biles’ decision to retire to Kerri Strug’s decision to continue competing despite injuring her ankle at the 1996 Olympics, Strug herself sent a message to Biles on Twitter supporting her decision.

Similarly, Dominique Moceanu, a former Olympic gymnast and gold medalist who competed in the 1996 games in Atlanta, explained on Twitter with a video of her painful fall why Biles was right to withdraw from the competition.

Finally, for the superstar, the outpouring love and support she has received following her retirement announcement has been the reaffirmation to a decision that was not an easy one to make.

“The outpouring love and support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before,” Biles said on Twitter.