This week, American superstar (and borderline superhuman) gymnast, Simone Biles, withdrew from the team and individual finals in the midst of Olympic competition (which I still don’t think should be happening in Tokyo right now) after experiencing a bout of “the twisties” and deciding, for the sake of her own mental health and safety, to not continue.
Then, social media went nuts.
Many people, celebrity and otherwise, voiced their support for Simone. Including professional athletes like Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner who openly shared his own mental health condition.
Meanwhile many others, including the decidedly non-athletic Piers Morgan (who continues to prove that having an oversized head doesn’t mean one has an oversized brain) chose to criticize Simone as being somehow “weak” for her decision. I’m not reprinting his words here because, frankly, they’re not worth it.
While I do like to see other people’s point-of-view in as many debates as possible, I’m firmly on the side of Simone Biles supporters in this one.
First of all, because as a non-gymnast, non-Olympian, non-athlete (though I did jump over some stuff my kids left on the floor recently) I can’t imagine what it’s like for an athlete to participate in the Olympics. Especially an athlete who comes from a history of abuse at the hands of an official in her sport and is expected to win gold at all costs.
Second of all, because now that I know what ‘the twisties’ are, I have even more respect for gymnasts than I already had. And I was pretty respectful already ever since I tried to do an “iron cross” on rings one day in high school gym class but could only, after considerable effort, make it to “liquid letter l”. Simply put, ‘the twisties’ in gymnastics are when you actually think about what you’re doing in mid-air. Instead of your muscle memory kicking in after the thousands of hours of practice you have put in, your mind focuses on the improbability of what you’re doing. So, instead of your mind and body working as one, your mind says “what the hell are we doing up here? And your body says “I don’t know. You said jump and flip so I jumped and flipped. Now we’re upside down. Your move!”
If you are very lucky, you come out of this inner debate between body and mind unscathed, with just an unstable landing (as Biles did). More likely you risk serious, permanent injury. Not really something you should be thinking about when you’re inverted in the air and falling fast.
For Ms. Biles to pull out of the U.S.A. team event before the finals was extraordinary because, as a finely tuned, multiple medal winning, elite athlete, she is considered less human than the rest of us. Even other Olympic gymnasts marvel at her ability and her creativity, having done things no one else has ever attempted let alone succeeded in. So when someone like that says, “I can’t do this right now. So I’m not going to.” It puts the world on notice that everyone needs help and no one should be shamed for taking care of their own mental health.
The only analogy I can possibly draw from personal experience is performing standup comedy. Those who have never done it are either terrified by the thought of it or assume that they can do it because comedians who do it well make it look effortless. But it takes a lot of effort to make comedy look effortless. And that’s without the physical effort of being an elite gymnast. I literally just have to stand there. And if I’m honest, more recently I’ve taken to sitting down a few times during a one-hour performance. So I’m a standup that sits down. Which is, in a way I guess, as innovative as Ms. Biles creating her own death-defying gymnastic moves. But in a completely opposite, not at all true, sort of way.
At the time of this writing it was unclear whether Simone would take part in any of the other events next week that she has already qualified for. But her American teammates have already won the silver medal and her American teammate Suni Lee won the gold medal in the overall individual competition. Which is certainly a testament to those other athletes toughness and abilities and should be widely celebrated. However, even if she doesn’t physically take part in this or any other Olympic games again, Biles has become a new type of champion which may have a more lasting effect than her long line of medals over the past decade. She has let athletes and non-athletes know that even those at the very top of their game are allowed to say when enough is enough. And while the marketing world has always encouraged those athletes and those who cheer them on to work through mental struggles with slogans like “Just Do it” or “Impossible is nothing” it’s important to remember that sometimes you need to not do it. Because it is impossible. Sometimes you need to take a break before you break yourself.
Anyone who doesn’t understand that, frankly, may need the most mental health help of all.