Under Pressure

I am an athlete, and I love the Olympics. Every Olympic year, I mark my calendar and watch as many events as my schedule allows. This year, however, I have been looking forward to them with mixed emotions.

First, I have really felt sorry for Japan–a country that I love–who was in the difficult position of choosing (I would say needing) to carry on with the Olympic games in spite of rising infection rates and low in-country vaccination rates, and opposition from many Japanese citizens.

Then, I have felt sorry for the families and friends of the athletes, none of whom were going to be able to attend to provide moral support and encouragement, leaving the athletes to compete in mostly empty venues.

But primarily, of course, I felt sorry for the athletes themselves. First, having to deal with a year’s postponement and how that affected not only their training, but their entire life plans. For some, of course the extra time helped, as they were able to heal from injuries that might have kept them out of the Olympics in 2020, but for others, it was a challenge, as they had a whole extra year of trying to stay fit and focused during a pandemic when most of us counted it a win if we put on pants for a zoom call.

We should not be at all surprised that the added pressure of extra training in a pandemic year, piled up on the already immense pressure of competing in the Olympic games, brought about some casualties. And therefore, we should not be at all surprised that some of the athletes haven’t performed up to expectations, and that there were some surprising losses where victory had been presumed.

Of course, the most shocking and sad example of this is Simone Biles.  She, who had been one of the main faces of the entire games, at least in the United States, and I would venture to say around the world as well. She, who had been tagged as the GOAT of GOATs, competing only against herself, a wonder and marvel every time she competed. She, with ice in her veins, so consistent, never making a mistake….

Is it any wonder that the pressure got to be too much?

If you saw her in the Olympics trials, you might have seen this coming. Even there, she was showing signs of vulnerability, and there were cracks in her armor. Repeatedly, you could tell she wasn’t happy, and that she was disappointed in herself and her performance, but she carried on; and because she is truly so outstanding, she won anyway, even falling short of her usual high standards.  But, obviously, the seeds of doubt had been sown, and by the time she got to Tokyo, it became quickly apparent that she was not going to be able to compete.

I have to say, I was awed by her courage and maturity at recognizing that she would run the real risk of a very serious injury if she continued, and so she chose to withdraw, even with the whole world watching, even in the heat of competition. She chose her own mental and physical health, and if I were that young woman’s mother, I would have said that I have never been prouder.

She trusted her teammates, and they, too, are to be credited: in what was truly an extraordinary and unprecedented situation, they rose to the challenge and all did their very best, not only for themselves, but to show their support for Simone–not just as an athlete but as a person and a friend.

There was something truly beautiful and inspiring in all of that, and the whole team deserves great credit for making the most out of a challenging situation and standing together.

In talking about it afterwards, Michael Phelps shared his own experiences with mental health challenges, and he emphasized the need to normalize conversations around mental health, providing more support and taking away the stigma. Other athletes that were interviewed echoed his statement, and you could tell they had a good sense of what Simone was experiencing.

As I write this, it is not clear what will happen next week. She pulled out of the individual all-around, but may still choose to compete for medals in individual events. Frankly, at this point, I don’t think it matters either way. There is no question in my mind that she is indeed the greatest of all time–not only in competition, but outside of it. She has stood up for herself–her health and well-being–first against sexual victimization, and now for her own mental health and overall wellness. In the face of many voices and heavy pressures to choose others over herself–risking her own physical and mental health, she said no, and she chose herself.

I am sure that her own advocacy will inspire others to be their own best advocates as well, and that is a legacy that will last far beyond any medal.

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