On Wednesday, USA Gymnastics confirmed that record-breaking gymnast Simone Biles would not compete in the individual all-around competition at the 2020 Olympics, in order to focus on her mental health. "Simone will continue to be evaluated daily to determine whether or not to participate in next week's individual event finals," USAG wrote in a statement. "We wholeheartedly support Simone's decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being."
The announcement came a day after Biles withdrew from the team competition on Tuesday due to an undisclosed medical issue — which came a day after Biles opened up about the mounting pressure she's under as the most decorated gymnast of all time. "I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times," she wrote on Instagram. "I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me but damn sometimes it's hard hahaha!"
In a Tuesday interview with Today's Hoda Kotb, Biles shared that she's focusing on her mental and emotional well-being. "Physically, I feel good," she said. "Emotionally, it varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being head star isn't an easy feat."
Everyone from Biles' fellow Olympians to Michelle Obama showed their support for her decision. Which, for the record, might not have even been much of a decision. Shortly before stepping away from Tuesday’s competition, Biles botched her first vault in what The New York Times called "the most shocking error of her career." But as former gymnast Andrea Orris noted in a post Biles re-shared, non-athletes might not understand that Biles' misstep wasn't a disappointment or a failure; it was a "terrifying" close call that should have signalled something was wrong.
"She could have been severely injured getting lost in the air like that," Orris wrote. "The fact she somehow landed on her feet shows her experience and is incredible."
But when it comes to Biles, even "incredible" is an understatement. Biles has 30 Olympic and World Championship medals, and has seemingly broken every record: In May, she became the first woman in the history of gymnastics to successfully pull off a Yurchenko double pike in competition, and a month later, she became the first American woman to win seven national titles.
So, yes, watching Biles compete is mesmerizing, but she doesn't owe medals and broken records to anyone — not USAG, not America, and certainly not the Twitter trolls asking why she didn't just withdraw sooner. She doesn't owe us an apology. And she doesn't owe us an explanation, either.
Just as they did when Naomi Osaka — another young, Black athlete who has openly discussed her struggles with her mental health — opted out of the French Open, online critics started saying what they would do if they were "in Biles' position," despite the fact that they never will be. For one thing, none of these people could land a double-double dismount. But more importantly, as a leader often credited with paving the way for Black women in gymnastics, as a survivor of an extremely public sexual assault, and as an unparalleled athlete, Biles has faced an immeasurable amount of scrutiny and expectations.
Over the past three years, while making history left and right, Biles has also been made a figurehead of one of the most public sexual abuse cases in sports history. In 2016, three former gymnasts came forward and said they had been sexually abused by disgraced USAG doctor Larry Nassar; by the end of 2017, more than 100 women and girls had shared similar stories. By 2018, Nassar stood accused of molesting and abusing over 300 young gymnasts — including Biles.
When the story first broke, Biles was 19 years old. She hadn't yet processed her own trauma. "I remember on tour, I would have really bad anxiety about nothing. Or, like, walking down a hall, I feared that somebody was following me," she told Vogue in 2020. "I was very depressed… At one point I slept so much because, for me, it was the closest thing to death without harming myself."
Nassar is now in prison, but USAG remains the sport's national governing body, despite the 2016 IndyStar report that the organization's top executives failed to report sexual assault allegations to authorities. Many of his accusers say that there hasn't been enough action taken to prevent similar predation in the future. Out of the hundreds of survivors who said they were abused by Nassar, though, Biles is the only one who isn't retired from gymnastics — which puts her under tremendous pressure.
Biles has continuously spoken out about the difficulty of continuing her gymnastics career while working with the very same organization that enabled her abuse. In a 2018 statement shared on Twitter and Instagram, she wrote that it "breaks [her] heart" to "have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused." And in her 2020 Vogue interview, she recalled training and breaking down in tears, wondering if she could really handle "another year of dealing with USAG."
And yet she continues to win, often at the expense of her own health and well-being. Just 24 hours before she won gold at the 2018 World Championships, Biles was hospitalized for a kidney stone. Her win rightfully made headlines, but hidden in many stories were a few devastating details: ESPN wrote that Biles' kidney stone left her in "searing agony" and "crawling on the floor." After receiving a CT scan and diagnosis, she reportedly left the hospital and said she would "deal with the pain" later.
The kicker? She "couldn't be treated with the same pain medication typically given those dealing with kidney stones, because it would put her in jeopardy of failing a drug test," wrote ESPN. "No matter. Biles' all-around total marked the highest in the world since her gold medal-winning total at the 2016 Summer Olympics."
So instead of debating over whether or not Biles' withdrawal was the "right" move or demanding that the Olympian explain her reasoning, why don't we trust that Biles is doing the right thing for herself — and for the generations of young athletes who are looking up to her as an example and a role model? Biles' health, both physical and mental, matters more than any medal or any win. It's about time that's realized.