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Simone Biles dropping out of Olympics sparks conversations about mental health

Announcer regrets tweets about Simone Biles' parents
Posted at 6:07 PM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-28 21:07:24-04

PHOENIX — The story shocked the nation and has sparked fierce debate. The most-decorated female gymnast of all time will not compete in the rest of the Tokyo Olympics and defend three of her gold medals.

Simone Biles announced Wednesday that she will be withdrawing from the All-Around Finals Competition, where she was the heavy favorite, due to ongoing mental health issues.

"I say, put mental health first, because if you don't, then you're not going to enjoy your sport and you're not going to succeed as much as you want to," said Biles, at a press conference after the team won Silver.

Many believe the decision by the Olympic superstar to focus on her well-being is a watershed moment when it comes to destigmatizing mental health. Some though voiced their criticism online.

"If people feel let down, well, that's too bad. But I think they're not maybe looking at the big picture - of her as a human being," said Julie Russomano, a licensed counselor with Infinite Healing and Wellness.

Russomano says even the greatest Olympians are not immune to the harsh realities of the pandemic.

"Most of the counselors I know are booked out because people are wanting to get help and support," she said. "We're seeing a lot of kids with anxiety and stuff. Isolation is hard."

On top of the pandemic's challenges and the immense pressure to perform and defend her titles, Biles also had past trauma she has had to publicly battle.

"A lot of [that] past trauma is related to the Olympics," said Russomano. "The whole gymnastics association [to] the stuff with Larry Nassar. All of those things can be really triggering."

Other athletes, many of them former Olympic divers and gymnasts, have come to Biles defense in discussing the "twisties." Athletes say the phenomenon throws the normally coordinated body and mind out of sync and can lead to serious injury.

"If your mind isn't right, then the risk of injuries is significant," said Adam Berry, a sports psychologist with Mindset Sports Psychology in Scottsdale.

In addition to possible injury, Biles believed mental mistakes would have hurt the team's scores.

"She must have known that she was going to be there was potential for huge criticism by doing this, but she did the right thing," said Berry.

"For the longest time, any kind of mental health stuff has been stigmatized," said Russomano.

But now, athletes like Naomi Osaka and Biles are changing the narrative. Experts think it could have a major domino effect.

"My hope is that it does give kids down the line, whether it's kids or adults, the ability to be okay with [not] being okay," said Russomano.