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Simone Biles Advocates for Mental Health

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August, 2021        

Written by, Cassie Cipolla 
Synergy eTherapy Summer 2021 Intern

Cassie graduated from the University of Kansas in 2020 with a Bachelor’s of General Studies in Psychology and a minor in Applied Behavioral Sciences. She plans to pursue a doctoral degree (PsyD) in Clinical Psychology and is specifically interested in a neuropsychology concentration.

Cassie previously worked as a Permanency Family Support Worker for KVC Health Systems in Kansas where she worked alongside case managers, therapists, and other mental health professionals to provide direct services to children and families within the child welfare system. 


Simone Biles

 is considered by most to be the best gymnast in the history of the sport. At 24 years old she has already won well over 30 medals in total and quickly became an American favorite after winning five medals at the 2016 Olympic Games.

There’s no doubt Biles was a must-see coming into this year’s Olympics and with such a long lead up to the games you could say people were pretty hyped to see her bring home some more gold. So when Biles withdrew herself, first from the team group competition, and then from the individual all-around, vault, bars, and floor finals, the world was shocked to say the least. 

How could the best gymnast of all time competing at the Olympic level be willing to back out of nearly all her finals????

USA Gymnastics put out a statement that Biles was withdrawing “due to a medical issue” leaving the world to assume she was physically injured. Biles soon made it clear that wasn’t the case, explaining at a press conference that she was stepping back to focus on her mental health. 

So what does this exactly mean? 

Elle Reeve at CNN explains that “this doesn’t mean she felt sad, or didn’t have her heart in it to compete. It means that her psychological state put her at significant physical risk. If her brain wouldn’t play along with what her body knows how to do, she could be seriously injured.” When asked about her health status at the press conference, Biles said “No injury, thankfully. And that’s why I took a step back, because I didn’t want to do something silly out there and get injured.”

It’s clear that Biles was aware that her mental state was putting her in harm’s way, leading to her informed decision to step back from the competition.   This decision to withdraw provoked comments and opinions worldwide but was quickly met with an outpouring of love and support from people across the country who praised Biles for prioritizing her mental health – something that’s rarely been seen on such a large scale in the past.

Many high profile figures showed their support for Biles online calling her a “true champion’, and a “class act”,  and admiring her “superhuman strength” and bravery in putting her health first. Biles later said that she was inspired to speak out about her mental health struggles after 4 time Grand Slam Champion Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open earlier in the year citing mental health as the reason behind her withdrawal. Osaka explained that she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking with the media and has struggled with depression leading up to the tournament in the past. This led her to skip her first press conference at the French Open to practice self-care – an action that was met with a $15,000 fine from the tournament.

What’s happening here is Osaka was fined for prioritizing her mental health because it essentially cost the tournament its ability to exploit her.  

The world of sports, and especially gymnastics, is notorious for prioritizing medals, rings, and trophies over the mental and physical well-being of the individuals that are competing. This dynamic has left athletes unprotected for decades, leading to physical injuries, mental exhaustion, and abuse by authority figures within the sport. 

In the past, physical health has been viewed as the main, if not only, determinant of someone’s overall health and well-being. Little attention has been given to the mental aspects of sports and athletes have avoided drawing attention out of fear of being perceived as “weak”. If an athlete of Biles nature had made such a statement 20, 30, 40 years ago, it’s safe to say it would’ve been met with far more criticism than support, and would have potentially turned one of the most favored athletes in the world into one of the most forgotten about. 

That’s why it’s barrier breaking for individuals such as Osaka and Biles to make statements advocating for mental health and be wrapped up in support, praise, and admiration for their decisions. It reflects a huge shift in society’s understanding and awareness around the importance of mental health, and will revolutionize the way we view and talk about mental health in the future. 

They have made it clear that at the end of the day – no matter your status, no matter your skills, no matter your sport – we are all just humans. And our strength as human’s doesn’t come from working through the pressure, but rather from our ability to recognize and acknowledge where we are physically and mentally, and make decisions that prioritize our health above all else. 

We have a long way to go in removing the stigma surrounding mental health, but Simone Biles has courageously taken us a step in the right direction. Her decision to withdraw from several finals at the 2020 Olympic Games will empower athletes at all levels to prioritize their health and will help to create a safer space for them to do so.


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