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Clippings: When superstar athletes become relatable

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Simone Biles brought an important mental health conversation back to the forefront.

Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 4

As a big-time Olympics fan with irrational quadrennial interest in Team USA, I’ve been circling the women’s gymnastics competition for some time. It’s always a thrill to watch Simone Biles perform because she executes skills that are literally beyond my imagination.

Unfortunately, as has been well-documented over the past 24 hours, Biles had to drop out of the competition after a vault that was well below her normal capability because she wasn’t in the right mental space. Her teammates rallied for silver, but there was a natural sense of disappointment to miss out on an opportunity to see one of the great athletes in the world on the biggest stage.

In the moment, it reminded me of the experience of watching the Clippers without Kawhi Leonard. Paul George and Reggie Jackson led the team to a .500 record in the eight postseason games after Leonard got hurt, better than most people would have imagined. It was hard to fully enjoy their success, though, knowing the heights the team could have reached had Leonard been healthy. Similarly, watching Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum mount a comeback against the Russian Olympic Committee and hit on eight of their last nine routines was thrilling; it just wasn’t the same given the dominance Biles and United States have achieved in this sport in recent years.

Ultimately, Biles’ withdrawal from the competition was bigger than just a matter of who won a gold medal. A superstar athlete on the precipice of historical immortality willingly decided to step away in order to preserve her mental health. Had she revealed that she had broken toes or kidney stones (both of which she’s competed through in the past), the decision likely would have drawn less controversy. But the truth of Biles’ situation was so much more powerful.

Already this year, Naomi Osaka has missed two grand slams to deal with her own mental health. Liz Cambage opted out of the Olympics for the same reason. After 16 months of living through a global pandemic, and then being forced to essentially compete in a bubble in Tokyo, it’s no surprise that these athletes are experiencing some of the highest stress levels of their lives.

To attempt to perform acrobatic gymnastics in that condition, especially the high-flying tumbling that Biles does, could legitimately threaten one’s permanent physical well-being. The international gymnastics federation says it has deliberately lowered the scores of some of Biles’ skills because of the danger of performing them so that other gymnasts are careful about copying them. There was a real risk for Biles to compete in that head space, and to make the call to opt out and forego a chance at multiple gold medals had to be heartbreaking.

We don’t talk much about the mental health of athletes, and it’s not that we don’t have the proper intel, because we speculate about their physical well-being all the time. But it’s an important part of their performance, as George noted last year in the NBA bubble. That level of isolation got him into a dark place, and he had to see a psychiatrist to work through it. Nevertheless, George was slammed with Playoff P jokes until his 2021 postseason proved that he has the ability to deliver when in the right mental space.

Nothing about Simone Biles has ever really seemed human until now — her anxiety makes her relatable. It’s something every person has to deal with in their own way. Hopefully, she finds a way through like George did. Biles doesn’t owe her fans any more of herself, but it would be a shame if her international career came to a premature end.

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