Simone Biles opening vault was the worst of her Olympic Career and within minutes she had withdrawn from the team competition saying afterwards that she did not want to risk her teammates’ chances of a medal by not being in the right place mentally.
Some were quick to jump on her distress saying that mental fortitude was one of the key elements that make a champion but her post-competition interview was a masterclass in putting the current heightened awareness of mental wellbeing in its proper context.
“We should be out there having fun and sometimes that’s just not the case.”
“I say put mental health first because if you don’t you are not going to enjoy it and you are not going to succeed as much as you want to. Sometimes it is best to sit out even the big competitions because it shows what a strong competitor and a person you really are, rather than just battle through it.”
If she has a calf strain a pulled muscle in her back nobody would think any less of her for withdrawing but are we not always told that the most important element of a champion is a mindset and who is to say that a days rest might not see her bounce back in the individual finals.
She came back to her teammates, cheered them to Silver and carried bags of chalk to them in their prep, switching from superstar to one of the gang, and showing perhaps more as a role model than in winning Gold.
A key point to bear in mind of course is that Biles, like Naomi Osaka before her, has already scaled the mountain of success at the highest level.
Of even greater relevance is the torment she has suffered through the Nasser sex abuse scandal that engulfed US Gymnastics between these two games.
Three years ago Biles spoke of that saying “Most of you know me as a happy, giggle, energetic girl but lately I’ve felt a little bit broke. The more I try to shut off the voice in my head, the louder it screams.”
She was 21 years old at the time, in possession of 25 Olympic and World Championship medals.
Whether a rising star could afford to step back from ‘battling through it’ is a question that many more will face in days, months and years to come. At the end of those days only the individual will know what they need to do to make things work for themselves.
Athletes are human beings and not machines. Medals are pieces of metal that can change a life but should never define it exclusively.
Sometimes we forget the toll that performing for our pleasure takes.
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