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Biles's Olympics withdrawal sparks conversation about athletes and mental health

Simone Biles
Posted at 5:06 PM, Jul 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-27 19:21:56-04

CLEVELAND — U.S. Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles shocked the world when she pulled out of the gymnastics team final in Tokyo Tuesday.

Biles said she withdrew because she wasn’t in the right headspace to compete and wanted to focus on her mindfulness.

Now, her decision is bringing attention to the pressure athletes at all levels face and the mental health issues that come as a result, and experts said the conversation could help address those struggles.

“I took a step back because I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured. I thought it was best if the girls took over and did the rest of the job,” said Biles.

Biles said she dropped out, ultimately, to help the team.

“This doesn't get talked about a lot, but the mental aspects include handling competition. That includes being focused,” said Dr. Patrick Runnels, the Vice-Chair of Psychiatry at University Hospitals.

Runnels said elite athletes like Biles have high levels of resilience to deal with the stress, but at the end of the day, they’re human.

“Simone Biles and every famous athlete is still human. And like all humans, sometimes we're not at our mental best,” said Runnels.

Sometimes that results in a situation like Tuesday's gymnastics team final, but pressure can affect athletes at any level of the sport they play.

“A lot of what you experience as a young athlete follows you into adulthood,” said Barb Anthony, the co-founder of the Northeast Ohio Women’s Sports Alliance.

Anthony said the key to more mental wellness among athletes is for coaches, parents, and fans to change how they interact with them.

“It's about building up a culture of allowing that vulnerability to exist — that like you're not superhuman, perfect. And you don't have to be,” said Anthony.

For Biles, she said the pressure just became too great.

“It’s been a long year so just a lot of different variables. I think we’re just too stressed out. We should be out here having fun but that’s the case,” said Biles.

But it's not a failure. Instead, her decision is something that could help other young athletes find the courage to speak up.

“It can only be positive when high-level famous — high profile athletes who have been incredibly successful come out and make decisions showing and demonstrating how important it is to take your own mental health and wellness seriously. That's huge,” said Runnels.

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Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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