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Inside Simone Biles’ mental health: Anatomy of an Olympics breakdown

Simone Biles is the golden girl, interrupted, of the Tokyo Olympics.

America’s beloved gymnast announced Tuesday that she was withdrawing from the team competition following a “stunning breakdown” at the 2020 Olympic Games, citing mental health issues — and not an injury — that were exacerbated by the pressure to be “head star” at the Tokyo Games.

After her unexpected departure, the USA women’s gymnastics team ended up taking home the silver medal without 24-year-old Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist.

After a fraught performance at Tokyo prelims on Monday, Biles already seemed to be hinting at a struggle. She opened up on Instagram, saying: “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world upon my shoulders at times.”

Simone Biles announced Tuesday that she was withdrawing from the team competition at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, citing mental health issues.
Simone Biles announced Tuesday that she was withdrawing from the team competition at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, citing mental health issues.AFP; Getty Images

She continued, “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but sometimes it’s hard, hahaha! The Olympics is no joke.”

And at a press conference after her teammates’ silver medal win Tuesday, Biles hinted at a more serious weight on her shoulders.

“Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out. I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” she said.

“We have to protect our body and our mind … It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”

But Biles clearly hid the full inner turmoil she was experiencing — a private agony that bubbled to the surfaced on Tuesday when she formally withdrew from the team competition.

Simone Biles of Team United States competes on vault during the women's team final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Tuesday.
Simone Biles of Team United States competes on vault during the women’s team final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Tuesday.
Getty Images

The gymnast said her main inspiration for focusing on her wellbeing was tennis ace Naomi Osaka, who shocked fans by pulling out of this year’s French Open and skipping Wimbledon on the grounds of stress, triggered by the mandatory press conferences after each match.

Biles also follows in the footsteps of 23-time Olympian gold medalist Michael Phelps, who revealed in 2018 that he suffers from depression and crippling anxiety.

Biles’ path to Olympic glory has been a challenging one. Here is a look back at all the times Biles has been open about her mental health struggles, including her childhood experiences, living with ADHD and the abuse she suffered at the hands of disgraced gymnastics trainer Larry Nassar.

Simone Biles of Team United States is consoled by coaches Cecile Landi and Laurent Landi after stumbling on the landing while competing in vault during the Women's Team Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Simone Biles is consoled by coaches Cecile Landi and Laurent Landi after stumbling on the landing while competing in vault at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Getty Images

She was in foster care as a child

Biles was traumatized during her early childhood in Spring, Texas, when her birth mother, Shannon Biles, became unable to care for her and her three siblings. The foursome went in and out of foster care, but Biles was adopted in 2003 by her loving maternal grandfather and his wife. The pair have long encouraged her passion for gymnastics. In her 2016 memoir, “Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, A Life in Balance,” the sportswoman discussed the disruption to her formative years, writing: “my biological mom was suffering from drug and alcohol abuse and she was in an out of jail, I never had mom to run to.”

The Russian gold medal team stands on the podium near the silver-winning US team — including Simone Biles — at the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games on Tuesday.
The Russian gold medal team stands on the podium near the silver-winning US team — including Simone Biles — at the Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games on Tuesday.
REUTERS

Her high school peers were bullies

As a teen whose intense training schedule led to peak fitness, she developed somewhat bulky muscles. As a result, Biles was bullied at school. In an appearance on the “Today” show four years ago, she recalled that classmates would make derogatory comments about her athletic figure.

“People would say mean things to me all the time,” she said. “They used to call me a ‘soldwier,’ which didn’t make me feel the best. I wore sweaters or jackets all year to cover my arms.”

Simone Biles competes on the balance beam at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Sunday.
Simone Biles competes on the balance beam at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Sunday.
AFP via Getty Images

She was treated by a sports psychologist at 16

After a poor performance at the 2013 US Classic, Biles’ confidence plummeted. She consulted Houston-based sports psychologist Robert B. Andrews, who helped her manage her nerves and use her excitement to improve her skills.

“After working with Robert, I was able to recover and get my confidence back,” she said in a joint interview with Andrews in 2014. The expert also taught her ways to “calm down” after competing. “I found that I was getting too intense,” Biles admitted. “Working with Robert also helped ease my fears and I found more confidence.”

Simone Biles competes in the artistic gymnastics vault event on Sunday at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Simone Biles competes in the artistic gymnastics vault event on Sunday at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
AFP via Getty Images

Her ADHD diagnosis was made public by hackers

In 2016, hackers managed to access Biles’ health records and released unauthorized, previously unknown details about her mental health. They exposed her as having ADHD, a condition for which she was prescribed medication.

Biles came out fighting, taking to Twitter to explain she was not cowed by the diagnosis. She defiantly posted: “Having ADHD, and taking medicine for it is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing that I’m afraid to let people know.”

Discussing the disorder in an NPR interview, Biles said: “At a very young age, I didn’t realize what the diagnosis was. But it was a very good outing for me to get some energy out and then come home tired, do some homework and go to bed easier.” She added that she never saw it as a disability: “Other kids have it as well. And it’s just we’re more active and hyper than them, and I never think of that as a downfall. If anything, I see it as a cool thing ’cause, like, we have more energy.”

She revealed she was abused by Larry Nassar

Larry Nassar listens during his 2018 sentencing in Michigan.
Larry Nassar listens during his 2018 sentencing in Michigan.
AP

In 2018, Biles revealed she was one of the more than 100 female gymnasts who accused team doctor Larry Nassar of molestation.

Besides saying the abuse brought about suicidal thoughts, she released a lengthy statement on her social media platforms. It was posted the day before a sentencing hearing at which Vassar heard victim impact statements.

“Most of you know me as a happy, giggly and energetic girl. But lately … I’ve felt a bit broken and the more I try to shut off the voice in my head the louder it screams,” Biles wrote.

Her brother almost went to jail

Biles' brother, Tevin Biles Thomas, was charged in the fatal shooting of three people at a New Year’s Eve party in Cleveland, Ohio. He was later acquitted.
Biles’ brother, Tevin Biles Thomas, was charged in the fatal shooting of three people at a New Year’s Eve party in Cleveland, Ohio. He was later acquitted.
Twitter: @Simone_Biles

If 2018 wasn’t bad enough, Biles endured another family crisis. Tevin Biles Thomas, the golden girl’s older brother, was charged in the fatal shooting of three people at a New Year’s Eve party in Cleveland, Ohio. He was ultimately acquitted this spring after a judge agreed with defense lawyers that there was insufficient evidence to justify a guilty verdict.

The pandemic put her ambitions on hold

Like many athletes with their hearts set on competing in the 2020 Olympics, Biles’ dreams were dashed when the country locked down in March 2020.

In an interview with Glamour, Biles “sat idle” for seven weeks and became depressed and thought of quitting.

“I wanted to give up,” Biles told the mag. “But it would have been dumb because I’ve worked way too hard.”

A masked Simone Biles lowers her head in Japan on Tuesday.
A masked Simone Biles lowers her head in Japan on Tuesday.
REUTERS


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