ON AUGUST 3RD AT THE TOKYO OLYMPICS, 24-year-old American gymnast Simone Biles marked her return to competition by winning the bronze medal on the balance beam. It was a phenomenal test of courage, skill, and perseverance in a dramatic summer Olympics that has been fraught with controversy and drama. But for Simone, it was an achievement, in some ways greater than the bronze medal that now ties her with 1996 Olympian Shannon Miller for the most Olympic medals won by a U.S. female gymnast.
From the start of the Games, the young woman from Spring, Texas, revealed she was suffering from the “twisties,” a mental block with physical manifestations that causes gymnasts to feel helplessly “lost in the air.” Dealing with the fear and disorientation akin to vertigo can result in serious injury. To complicate matters, Simone’s decision to pull out of the team final, the all-around, the uneven bars, vault, and floor exercise caused a tidal wave of backlash, with many of her fans accusing Simone of being a “copout.” Not unexpectedly, the most brutal criticism came from Britain’s acid-tongue, temperamental social commentator, Piers Morgan, who slammed her in his Daily Mail column. “I don’t think it’s remotely courageous, heroic, or inspiring to quit,” he said, insensitively tossing aside the superstar athlete’s attribution to her mental health struggles. “When you call yourself the GOAT (“Greatest Athlete of All Time”) in sport, you can’t then quit the moment things get tough or you make a mistake.” To add to such intense pressure, two days before she was scheduled to compete on the beam, Simone received sad news from home that her aunt had died.
Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps related what Simone was going through to his own difficulties during the last years of his career in competition, saying, “I felt like I was caring, as Simone said, the weight of the world on your shoulders, so, yeah, it’s a tough situation.”
Like a Frank Capra movie, in the end, the good always outweighs the bad. From all over the world, people flocked on social media in droves, supporting Simone’s decision to step back and deal with her mental problems. “The outpouring of love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics, which I never truly believed before,” Simone posted on Twitter on July 28. Adding to the support were words of encouragement from Michele Obama. “We are proud of you, and we are rooting for you,” the former First Lady wrote on Twitter.
Asked whether she plans to compete in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, she replied, “I just need to process the whole thing first.” Whatever decides, Simone Biles has proven she is indeed a champion as an athlete—and as a woman.
images are from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio