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Simone Biles’ Olympic withdrawal could be her greatest act of heroism

There’s more to being a role model than just competing.

Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 4 Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Simone Biles, the world’s greatest gymnast and leader of USA’s women’s all-around team, withdrew from the event Tuesday morning. Initially USA Gymnastics said it the withdrawl was due to a “medical concern,” but the NBC broadcast, and later Biles, clarified that the withdrawal was due to mental health concerns.

Team USA performed admirably, despite being without the greatest gymnast in the world. Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum took on a monumental load, picking up Biles’ apparatus and still managing to win silver. Russia went on to take gold.

The event itself was completely overshadowed with the news Biles was withdrawing, however. Walking out to raucous applause, it was clear the Tokyo crowd was there to see arguably the biggest superstar in the history of the sport. It came one day after Biles uncharacteristically struggled in qualifying, but was still so good that Team USA easily coasted into the finals.

The pressure on Simone Biles has been unlike anything these Olympic games

One of the amazing things about the Olympic games is how athletes are largely able to drift into anonymity in the years between competition. They come out for the games, become Summer heroes, then return to their training and lives, before doing it all again.

It’s been different for Biles. The pressure of being the GOAT has kept her in the public eye ever since Rio. Biles not only carries the weight of her own performance, but being a role model, speaking about being a survivor of sexual assault, and the endless pressure from the world of gymnastics to carry the torch for the sport.

During qualifying, Biles did not perform up to her standards. Keep in mind, her “standards” are unlike anything else in world gymnastics. Her few mistakes were amplified and talked about ad nauseam. Where other athletes get the benefit of just having a bad day, or a poor game, when Biles falters it becomes its own news cycle forming constant discussion of her performance and whether it could cost USA victory.

On Monday she opened up on Instagram, saying the pressure was getting to her. We all, myself included, believed Biles would bounce back, win gold, rising from the ashes like she’s capable of and once again doing the unbelievable. Now it’s clear things were worse than we thought.

How things went down on Tuesday

Biles entered the arena to a hero’s welcome. Her first discipline was vault, which she immediately struggled on. Setting out to do a Yurchenko 5 twist, a vault she’s nailed hundreds of times, Biles opened up early, failing to make one full twist and taking a large step forward on landing. She was awarded a 13.766, he lowest score of the games up to this point.

The gymnast was seen talking to Team USA coaches and training staff. Soon after she spoke to her teammates, informing them she was exiting the event. Chiles, Lee, and McCallum, locked in on the competition, simply wished her well, nodded, and chalked up for the next apparatus — knowing they would need to fill Biles’ considerable void.

At the end of competition, after Russia secured the gold medal, Biles returned to the floor to congratulate the winning team.

Initially it seemed that Biles would continue in the games

USA Gymnastics respected Biles’ privacy and did not expand on her exit from the team competition, or say whether there were plans for Biles to miss any more competition. With two days before the individual all-around competition, Biles said she planned to compete.

Things took a turn early Wednesday morning. Biles announced she was withdrawing from the all-around competition as well, to focus on her mental health. The plan now is for Biles to have daily evaluations from the Team USA staff, before Biles makes any decisions about whether she will compete in the individual apparatus next week.

More important than anything else is Biles’ wellbeing

Simone Biles made the decision she felt was best for herself, and that’s the most important thing here. There is no glory if deifying athletes in the past who competed through significant mental or physical health issues without our knowledge, and compare that to Biles.

In 2018 Michael Phelps opened up about how much he struggled during the games with the weight of being the greatest swimmer of all time, even saying at times that he contemplated taking his own life. Phelps also explained how he turned to substance abuse as a coping mechanism when the pressure became too much, all without the knowledge of fans.

What Biles did on Tuesday is, perhaps, her greatest example of heroism. With mental health still stigmatized in much of society, it takes a tremendous amount of bravery to open up to the public, say you’re struggling and take mental struggles as seriously as a torn ligament.

The gold medals, the competition, all pale in comparison to Biles looking after herself. In the end, regardless of what happens next, Simone Biles walking away from competition for her mental health could become the greatest example of being a role model in her career.

We’ll have more information on Biles’ future in the Tokyo Olympics as it becomes available.