By Carol Zimmermann | Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — When Simone Biles, described as the world’s greatest gymnast, announced July 27 she would not be competing in a team event with the U.S. women’s Olympics gymnastics team and the next day withdrew from the all-around final, many people were shocked, but many supported her decision to prioritize her mental health.
Counselors and spiritual directors at Catholic colleges and ministries who spoke with Catholic News Service echoed a similar view and also said her action opened up a broader and much-needed discussion about the importance of mental health care.
Biles, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, told reporters she was not in the right state of mind to continue the competition after she completed one fewer than planned midair twists in the team’s first event and uncharacteristically stumbled on her landing.
Later, she said she had experienced as a “little bit of the twisties,” an almost quaint term used by gymnasts that belies its meaning of losing control of one’s body while in the air.
That particular sensation is one most Olympics viewers likely can’t even begin to relate to, but the feeling of “fighting all those demons,” which Biles said she had been doing along with a sense of the “weight of the world” on her shoulders, is something non-Olympic stars can grasp on one level.
“Even if we aren’t carrying around the pressure of performing as one of the greatest athletes of all time, we are all susceptible to the undercurrents in our culture that preach grit, grind and pushing through,” wrote Zac Davis, associate editor of America magazine.
In a July 28 column he said Biles’ decision put her in a “new public role of spiritual director” by showing that “impulses to be the best do not need to rule over our lives.”
It also places her on a platform with other high-profile athletes who also have spoken about mental health including Michael Phelps, Olympic gold medal swimmer, and Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, who recently withdrew from the French Open.
“In some ways (these athletes) are ‘coming out’ to educate those who work with them” — parents, coaches and administrators — that mental health is an issue that needs attention, said Jason Parcover, director of the Counseling Center at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.
“I think athletes in our society experience a lot of pressure and are expected to be really tough — and to be almost immune to weakness and struggle — and when they are in pain to play through it. That certainly has led to significant stigma around seeking help for mental health issues,” he told CNS.
“When we see professional athletes, especially those we revere in so many ways, acknowledge they too have a mental health issue and it’s important to get help for it and learn to manage it, that really gives everyone else more permission to do the same,” he added.
Based on his own work on a college campus, he said, college athletes historically are among the least likely to seek help, but that is starting to change.
Thomas Wurtz, founder of Varsity Catholic, a division of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students with a specific outreach to student athletes, said the spotlight on mental health in sports should be a “good gut check” even at the youth level in Catholic schools and CYO programs where so much emphasis can be placed on winning and coaches’ demands can often drown out other voices in kids’ lives.
He said athletes can find their self-worth wrapped up in how they perform, which can make it hard to accept an injury or defeat. When they are in touch with the spiritual side, he said, they gain a different perspective recognizing that if they win or lose, “God willed me to be in this moment in this time.”
Biles, who is Catholic, has spoken of her dad’s constant reminder not to waste God’s gift of her talent and to use it to the best of her ability.
In her autobiography, “Courage to Soar,” written in 2016, she mentions that her confirmation name is Sebastian, from the patron saint of athletes. That same year she told US Weekly magazine that she sometimes has a statue of St. Sebastian in her bag along with a rosary from her mom.
St. Sebastian, who lived in the third century, was said to be shot by multiple arrows during a Roman emperor’s persecution of Christians. He survived and was nursed back to health only to go and confront the emperor and be clubbed to death.
The martyred saint is held up as an example of physical strength, resiliency and bravery.
Wurtz said he was a “great witness” to the faith by speaking of his beliefs from his platform as a soldier and then having the courage to personally challenge the emperor.
That image could come in handy for Biles, who also has faced some criticism for not competing with the team. She has since withdrawn from the individual floor event, the uneven bars and the vault and had not yet announced if she would compete in the balance beam event Aug. 2.
Wurtz, who acknowledged Biles needed to step back, was among those who expressed concern about her announcement’s timing amid the competition. But he said that does not take away from her personal suffering and if Biles can see her worth isn’t just in her performance, then “that’s a huge blessing in her life.”
She did seem to experience just that, tweeting July 29: “The outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
Responding to that tweet, Catholic Charities USA thanked Biles for taking care of her mental health.
Sister Joanne Belloli, a Sister of the Precious Blood of Dayton, Ohio, and a mental health counselor with Livingston County Catholic Charities in Howell, Michigan, for almost 20 years, similarly applauded Biles’ decision.
She said in her work she frequently sees people having to make very difficult decisions and that their strength often comes from recognizing their weaknesses.
She said Biles “made a wise decision” and also gave her points for staying and supporting her teammates, noting: “Sometimes you need to take care of yourself and still take care of others.”
Dominican Sister Jenn Schaaf, assistant chaplain at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, similarly emphasized Biles’ support and encouragement of her teammates and also mentioned the added pressure on all the Olympic athletes competing during the pandemic.
She said young adults have faced spiritual and mental challenges this past year when their “access to normal spaces, communities and routines was disrupted.”
For Biles, you add to that “being an elite competitor, a minority and someone who has experienced trauma,” then is it even more amazing to see her resilience, she added.
In his column, Davis similarly pointed out that it was brave for Biles to make the choice she did and he also acknowledged that “not everyone will understand it.”
And that’s one reason why people will likely continue to talk about it.
The day after Biles’ announcement, Rachel Annunziato, a professor of psychology at Fordham University, a Jesuit-run school in New York, talked about it one of her classes.
Her view, she told CNS in an email, is that it “takes a great deal of courage and self-awareness to make the decision that Simone Biles did.”
“Given the collective trauma we are all going through (coupled with the traumatic experiences the U.S. gymnastics team has faced), I think having a sense of one’s limits when it comes to safeguarding emotional and physical well-being is incredibly important and insightful.”
Her comment also brings attention to yet another issue: the longtime impact of abuse and the lingering lack of trust in USA Gymnastics after accounts in The Indianapolis Star said the group’s executives had failed to report teams members’ allegations of sexual abuse to authorities.
Over 265 gymnasts, including Biles, accused USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexually assaulting them. In 2018, he was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.
In an April interview, Biles told NBC’s Hoda Kotb that she wanted to continue competing to be a voice for change.
“If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side,” Biles said.
So she brings all that to the floor with her in the Tokyo Olympics.
Sally Jenkins, sports writer for The Washington Post, said it is “unfair and potentially even deceptive” to try to understand all that Biles is going through right now.
“It was always equally unfair,” she added, to expect Biles “to vault lightly past the Nassar case and back on to the medal podium.”