Simone Biles makes an historic comeback after after her two-year hiatus from gymnastics due to mental health issues.
Simone Biles makes an historic comeback after after her two-year hiatus from gymnastics due to mental health issues.
(Photo credit: Grace Callahan/Canva/Achona Online)

Simone Biles returns after struggling with mental health

The US women’s gymnastics team won their seventh consecutive title at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Antwerp, Belgium. This historic win broke Team USA’s tie with the Chinese men for the longest streak of consecutive team titles. While leading the team to victory, Simone Biles became the most decorated gymnast in history, coming off an impressive return to the sport after her two-year hiatus from gymnastics.

During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, decided to pull out of the competition due to mental health challenges caused by intense psychological pressure. Biles expressed she had felt an immense amount of stress and anxiety leading into the games due to the amount of pressure she put on herself to live up to other people’s expectations. After winning bronze on the balance beam, in agreement with Team USA’s sports psychologist, Biles opted out of competition. “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,” said Biles.

Biles later revealed she was experiencing a common phenomenon among gymnasts known as the “twisties.” The twisties, most commonly triggered by stress and anxiety, make an athlete feel lost in the air or like they have no control over their body when doing high-level skills. After pulling out of the competition, Biles received a lot of backlash from the media back in America. For example, the American conservative activist and talk show host Charlie Kirk spoke out against Simone Biles, calling her a “selfish sociopath” and a “shame to the country.” However, many athletes and mental health professionals acclaimed Simone for her decision. Micheal Phelps, a retired Olympic swimmer and the most decorated Olympian of all time said in an interview with NBC, “We’re human beings, nobody is perfect. It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to go through ups and downs and emotional roller coasters … I felt like I was carrying, as Simone (Biles) said, the weight of the world on my shoulders. It’s a tough situation.” Many mental health professionals have also praised her decision, “Everyone needs to prioritize their mental health, even the best athletes in the world,” said the British mental health advocacy group “Rethink Mental Illness.” A few days after withdrawing from competition, Simone took to Instagram to thank her supporters, “The outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before” said Simone. 




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Biles isn’t the first high-profile athlete to open up about mental health struggles. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, revealed his own struggle with depression and anxiety in a 2015 interview with Sports Illustrated following his DUI arrest. Phelps is now an outspoken advocate for mental health and a spokesperson for Talkspace, an application that connects people with trained mental health experts for online therapy sessions. Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam winner and one of the brightest stars in women’s tennis, cited mental health challenges as the reason for her withdrawal from the 2021 French Open, stating “…there can be moments for any of us where we are dealing with issues behind the scenes…each of us humans is going through something on some level.” Osaka has joined Phelps as another outspoken advocate for mental health and now serves as the chief community health advocate for Modern Health, a company dedicated to helping employers connect their employees with mental health services. Numerous other professional athletes have joined Biles, Phelps, and Osaka in openly discussing their mental health challenges. Mental health experts hope the trend of professional athletes sharing their own struggles will destigmatize the topic of mental health and encourage millions of Americans silently suffering from mental health challenges to seek treatment that could ultimately save their lives. 

Biles acknowledged that she was nervous coming into the 2023 World Championship competition and feared a repeat of the “twisties” that forced her to drop out of the 2020 Olympic Games but noted that the therapy, breathing, and visualization exercises she has been doing on a regular basis since the 2020 Olympics have helped her recover.  Biles shared that going to talk therapy was particularly helpful as it allowed her to “process all the emotions” associated with the trauma caused by Larry Nassar, the US gymnastics team doctor who was sentenced to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing Biles and over 150 other USA gymnasts. Biles has been open about her progress in therapy and said it has helped her rediscover her love and passion for gymnastics. 

Biles, along with Phelps and Osaka, showed tremendous courage in sharing their own personal struggles with depression and anxiety, a step that has helped to de-stigmatize mental illness and made it easier for the millions of Americans who suffer silently from mental health challenges to seek help. More importantly, all three athletes showed that overcoming setbacks and competing again at the highest level is possible, even while managing mental health struggles.   


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