The Tokyo Olympics are over for Simone Biles, finishing in dramatic fashion by winning her seventh career medal, a bronze on the balance beam. It wasn’t the Olympic run she planned for, but in the end it might mean even more.
Biles detailed how the games took a toll on her after the event. The silver lining is that the world’s greatest gymnast used sport’s brightest stage to unintentionally spread the message of the importance of mental health. In the end she learned more about herself by pulling out of the events than she would have by winning. Biles explained how she understood the value of mental health, and how loved she felt by having Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka and Oprah Winfrey, among others, reach out and check on her.
The immediate effects of her actions are quantifiable. Stories about the mental health of gymnasts and athletes generate over 2 million interactions, according to a study by Axios. Google searches about mental health also reached their highest in two months, the day Biles dropped out of the team competition at the Olympics. People looked at Biles, saw what she was going through, and wanted to learn more — and the value of that, of helping to remove the stigma of mental illness is more impactful than medals around her neck will ever be.
Of course, there’s still more work to be done. For every message of support and person who understands what Biles went through in Tokyo, there were equal numbers of people who called her a “quitter.” That some how, in the pantheon of Simone Biles achievements, competing injured, completing with a friggin’ kidney stone, somehow this was an excuse to “quit.”
The message Biles’ sent isn’t for them, at least not yet. One day perhaps people who criticized Biles for stepping away will appreciate their own mental health struggles, which literally every single person has, even if they’re not willing to admit it. For now, they’re not ready, not brave enough to stand up and say “I’m struggling,” and protect themselves the way Simone Biles did.
The message Simone sent in Tokyo was for those who can’t articulate how they feel. Those who are underwater with anxiety or depression, feeling like they’re alone on an island. Someone with the resume of Simone Biles saying “I struggle too” holds weight, a tremendous amount of weight, especially to kids who see her as a role model.
It tells them that live isn’t just about celebrating your successes, but being open and honest with your struggles — because none of us are alone, even if it feels that way. Biles learned that when she opened up in Tokyo, and the same goes for everyone else.
Congratulations Simone Biles, not just for winning bronze, but telling the world it’s okay to not be okay.