Every Olympian reacts differently to the outsize pressure of the Games, of course, though almost all feel it at some point. The pressure Simone Biles faced in Tokyo — as one of the most recognizable figures in these Summer Games, as the standard-bearer in women’s gymnastics and as, at one point, a potential winner of five gold medals here — feels familiar to her fellow athletes.
News that the 24-year-old withdrew from Tuesday’s team final and then the individual all-around, her sport’s signature event, drew empathy and messages of support from Biles’s fellow Olympians in Tokyo — both active and, in the case of Michael Phelps, retired. It also prompted reflections on their own mental health struggles.
“I would never want to speak for Simone or say that I know what she’s feeling, because none of us do,” said U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky, one of the few Olympians in Tokyo facing similar expectations. Ledecky is also a face of these Games, and she also arrived chasing five medals.
“We’re at the highest level. We have the most eyes on us of anyone in the world. I’m not saying ‘us,’ as in Simone and me; I’m saying everyone at the Olympics. Everyone around the world is watching. And certainly Simone has so many eyes on her. … I have no doubt in my mind she will be back, hopefully [next] week.”
“She’s on every commercial and billboard and bag I see, and she’s, like, touted as, like, she’s going to win everything!” said Carissa Moore, the U.S. surfer who in Tokyo became the first woman to win a gold medal in her sport at the Olympics. “How crazy is that, that expectation? I think she’s handled it beautifully. I applaud her for putting herself first and doing what’s right for her. That’s hard to do in a world where people expect so much of you and have this idea of what success looks like.”
Many of the Olympians asked about their reaction to Biles’s withdrawal pointed to one critical resource for maintaining their own mental health: community.
USA Softball outfielder and silver medalist Haylie McCleney is grateful she plays a team sport, in which teammates lift her when she’s down and support her when she prioritizes her health. Biles has teammates on the U.S. women’s squad, of course, and fellow gymnasts Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum shared hugs when Biles announced she was withdrawing from the team final Tuesday night. Annie Heffernon, the vice president of the U.S. women’s gymnastics program, said the organization has plans in place to get Biles the professional help she needs.
But Biles also has a painful history with USA Gymnastics, the governing body for which she is both the de facto spokeswoman and a vocal critic.
Biles, the only self-identified survivor of former national team doctor Larry Nassar’s crimes still competing at the elite level, lambasted USA Gymnastics ahead of the national championships in 2019 for failing to protect its athletes.
On Tuesday, McCleney extended the U.S. softball team’s support to Biles — a teammate not on the softball diamond but broadly on Team USA.
“I guess we just want to say we’re thinking about Simone,” McCleney said.
Olympians also expressed the need to allow Biles to return to gymnastics on her own time. She has not yet decided whether she will participate in the individual event finals next week, and Tuesday she spoke of competing for the sake of others, not her own enjoyment.
“At this level, you have to have fun to perform your best,” veteran U.S. rower Genevra Stone said. “ … Really, what it takes to get out there in an Olympic final is having the heart to do it. That’s really the superpower of an Olympian, that heart and that passion. That’s what it takes, that drive. That heart. Loving what you do. And I hope Simone finds that love.”
USA Softball pitcher Cat Osterman spoke of the unforgiving standards athletes hold themselves to. Olympians represent their countries, of course, and often have double duty serving as ambassadors for their sports that need platforms such as the Olympics to grow.
Osterman was one of the veteran players tasked with reestablishing softball on the Olympic stage after the sport was dropped following the 2008 Games.
“The Olympics are a special situation, and having [been in her] shoes, she probably thinks she faltered and is going to disappoint a lot of people,” Osterman said. “There is a common conception as an athlete that, if you come home with less than silver, it’s a disappointment, and you think you’re going to go home and all of a sudden be less-than in people’s eyes. I’ve experienced that, and experienced the mental health downside that went with it. Not something that I’ve spoken about publicly, but as an athlete, when you have all that weight on your shoulders and if you don’t have the right people in your corner or you’re not tapping into them day-to-day, it’s not the easiest thing to carry it by yourself. So I commend her for stepping up and saying: ‘You know what? I can’t do this right now.’ ”
Olympians have varying methods for coping with the burden of expectation. Swimmer Ariarne Titmus, a gold medalist for Australia, deletes all social media off her phone so she won’t be overwhelmed by messages — even supportive notes from her family. Moore, the surfer, employs a mental coach. Osterman leans on her teammates.
The most important thing for those who watch and cheer and expect things from Biles, the pitcher said, is that the world’s best gymnast is also a human being.
“There are feelings and there are things in [the Olympics] that happen and weights on the shoulders, and it’s not: ‘Oh, you’ve done this a thousand times. You should just be able to deal with it,’ ” Osterman said. “Like anything in life, you can do it over and over, and there might be one minor situation or minor tweak to a circumstance that changes your nerves or your feelings.”
Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.