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July 29, 2021

Mental Health over Recognition: Why Simone Biles is the GOAT.

My cheeks hurt because I can’t stop smiling.

Social media is sizzling with silver linings.

While most of us expected people to look away, Simone Biles extended each one of us an invitation to look in on her experience—to be a part of it and to try to understand why she felt compelled to walk away from her chance at another gold. The shine was too bright for her; the heat was starting to burn.

Her honesty took my breath away. She was not apologetic in the slightest. She never mentioned letting anyone down. She just laid it out—plain and simple. She’s such a tiny thing, but don’t let that fool you. She is fierce, from head to toe.

I am mesmerized by all of the posts recognizing our Wonder Girl. She really nailed the landing on her last Olympics performance (withdrawing, that is). Even in her darkest hour, she dazzled us with her courage. She has started a discussion about the pressure that our athletes are under, which will undoubtedly lead to a further discussion about how difficult this last year and a half has been for all of our children.

When an athlete shines the spotlight on something so significant, they become a role model; an upgrade, in my opinion. With all the courage she could muster, she did something that could potentially bring such tarnish to her squeaky-clean image. And yet, she shines on. 

She is more than her accomplishments. She is more than her gymnastics career. 

Our young people need to be reminded that they are humans first. In the feverish pursuit of accolades and awards, perhaps we have to take this time to rethink the messages our culture is sending them. Adults brag about how many hours a week they work, how exhausted they are, and we root them on. Why is this a good thing? Other countries have figured out what we still need to learn; the balance of work and life.

I want to tell our youth that they are more than their bodies. They may have fat, but they are not fat. They may be struggling with an eating disorder, but their appetite for life lessons is far more important. They may be an average student, but a student of life will take them farther. They are not the labels that our educational system has branded them with. They may be depressed and anxious, but this condition is not permanent, and it certainly does not define them.

How do we make this clear to them? How do we give them permission to flounder? How can we banish the shame that comes with mental health issues?

When I suffered for a few months with profound anxiety and depression a few years ago, plenty of people I knew vanished. It rocked me to my core. I suffered from the pain that comes with these demons and then from feeling judged or unlovable by people who just couldn’t figure out how to cope with this version of me. Yet when I had skin cancer, there was a line at my front door to deliver flowers and wish me well.

It’s nobody’s fault, and it’s everybody’s fault. We have not found the cure for how to support those suffering from mental health disorders. In some ways, we create more suffering by alienating them. Those few months were the most pain I’ve ever felt in my lifetime.

I truly believe deep down to my bones that Simone Biles will be remembered for making our nation more conscious of the importance of choosing mental health over recognition; it is a choice. And though she may never have imagined possible, she is now being recognized for the buzz that her actions have created. If you listen closely, you will hear the chatter of people talking about how important it is that we prioritize mental health in our country. She didn’t hide behind the “medical condition” PR story.

I can tell you firsthand that skin cancer was a cakewalk compared to anxiety—in every way. In fact, Biles took the first opportunity she could find to sit down for an interview and say that physically, she was fine. Another athlete with less of a sense of self may have left it there.

She may not have stood on the podium to receive a medal, but she sure stood tall on her own two feet when she said, “I have to do what’s best for me.”

Who could even imagine an athlete considering this a viable option? Has any athlete ever stepped down because their mental health was suffering?

As suicide rates soar, our young people need to realize there is always another way when the burden they are carrying feels too heavy to bear. Isolating amplifies fear, and reaching out brightens the path out.

Thank you, Simone, for shining your light on others who may have forgotten they have their own. My heart swells, watching the fallout of her actions. She helped us see what it looks like to live and breathe that two-word phrase we hear so often: self-care.

So that’s how it’s done, huh?

You have given every parent the opportunity to check in with their children; to take a pulse on where they are feeling stretched and how they could use support. You have opened a door so that others who feel lost can walk through and speak to friends and family about their own struggle without as much stigma. And you may have even held a mirror up to the way we train athletes in this country and around the world, as you did when sexual assault plagued gymnastics.

You didn’t have the Olympics you expected, and neither did we, but thank goodness for unexpected miracles. May we create them, may we embrace them, and may we pay them forward. A standing O to you and your team for showing us what it looks like to be a team. People stepped up as you stepped down, and you were their loudest cheerleader. Watching you stand on the sidelines was proof that you are a brilliant leader.

Your magic can be felt far and wide, beyond the gymnasiums you trained in all of your life and in every home of spectators who couldn’t take their seats this time. You may not be able to see us, but we will attempt to follow your lead and step up our game.

It’s time that we made some changes in the way we define mental health and how we treat those who are suffering. I can’t wait to see what’s next for you. 

There’s an election coming up in 2024. Interested? 

(I’ll run your campaign.)

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