Simone Biles flew through the air, came down and hopped when she landed on the mat. Her facial expression showed she wasn’t happy with the vault. The judges’ scores showed they weren’t either — they handed the American gymnastics star the lowest marks in the competition to that point.
Biles later told reporters she didn’t even realize she’d completed the maneuver. That, she said, was a sign to her that she wasn’t in the right headspace.
After the botched vault, Biles left the arena in Tokyo with a member of the U.S. training staff. When she returned, she was in a sweatsuit. The Olympic champion withdrew from the gymnastics team final on Tuesday morning, citing mental health reasons.
“It’s very unfortunate this has to happen at this stage … It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head,” Biles said.
The American women, who were favorites to win the event, placed second with a score of 166.096, trailing the Russian Olympic Committee’s 169.528. It was the first time since 2008 that the U.S. didn’t win gold in the event.
Once Biles withdrew, it was up to the other three women on the team — Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles and Suni Lee — to compete and fill her void. Chiles stepped in for Biles on the uneven bars and beam, while Lee filled in for the floor routine
Chiles, who fell off the beam during Saturday’s qualifying round, scored a 13.433 in the event while filling in, helping the U.S. cut into the ROC lead. The Americans trailed by 0.8 going into the floor routine, but they weren’t able to catch the ROC after Chiles fell during her floor routine.
Though she wasn’t competing in the event, Biles remained on the sideline and cheered for her teammates as they went through the rotations.
With the Olympics gymnastics spotlight now turning to individual competition, it was not clear later Tuesday what role Biles intends to play going forward.
She qualified for all five individual finals earlier this week, but she told reporters she’s undetermined about competing in all or any of the remaining events. Three are scheduled in the coming days, including the women’s all-around final on Thursday, while the vault and uneven bars finals take place Sunday.
Biles called the Olympics “really stressful” and said this was the first time she felt like she did Tuesday during a competition. She added that she didn’t want to second-guess herself in the other events of the competition and risk injury.
“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” Biles posted to Instagram on Sunday. “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me, but damn sometimes it’s hard.”
Biles is the latest elite sports figure to speak openly about the mental toll of competition at the highest levels.
“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human, too,” Biles said. “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
Tennis star Naomi Osaka, ranked No. 2 in the world, withdrew from the French Open this year and didn’t return to competition until the Olympics for the same reasons.
Osaka fell in her third-round match Tuesday against Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in three sets in an upset. Osaka, the highest-paid female athlete in the world, was the face of the games for Japan, lighting the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony.
“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,” Osaka said after her match. “I think it’s maybe because I haven’t played in the Olympics before and for the first year [it] was a bit much.”
Simone Manuel, a U.S. swimmer who won two gold medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and a bronze medal this year, said she battled overtraining syndrome in March, forcing her to take three weeks off from training.
“This was definitely my biggest fight,” Manuel said in a June press conference during the U.S. Olympic Trials. “It started a little bit in January. I think it was something that I didn’t quite notice until my body like completely crashed.”
Dan Gould, the director of the Institute of Youth Sports at Michigan State, said it’s tough for sports stars to deal with stress — and the growing influence of social media has amplified the toll on modern athletes.
“Some of our most recent research shows that this generation of young people, Generation Z, are less equipped for stress,” Gould told the Washington Times. “A lot of people feel because parents have protected them sometimes and they didn’t have to deal with problems and work through it.”
Gould, who has focused in his research on catastrophe theory — a physiological theory that attempts to explain the connection between stress and athletic performance, said when an athlete is confident, their bodies and minds can handle more stress. Up to a limit. When athletes are overstimulated, it can lead to a negative impact on performance.
“We know when they have a lot of worry, sometimes they get over-aroused and they kind of fall off, [have] increased muscle tension, concentration changes and that can have an influence on their performance,” Gould said.
The mental health hurdles aren’t always confined to athletic performances. Stress can spill over into an athlete’s personal life.
Baltimore native Michael Phelps, a 23-time gold-medal swimmer, struggled with ADHD and depression while he was competing — and in 2018, he said he contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympics in London.
“Sometimes you see, like in Phelps’ case, their performance doesn’t suffer, but it’s outside the sport that suffers,” Gould said.
Kevin Love, a former NBA first-round pick, wrote about his mental health in an essay published by the Players Tribune in 2020. In the piece, he detailed the struggles he endured, sharing a message for those facing similar issues.
“If you’re struggling right now, I can’t tell you that this is going to be easy. But I can tell you that it does get better,” Love wrote.
Scientific research found that about 35% of elite athletes deal with some form of mental health disorders during their careers, according to an International Olympic Committee release in 2019.
The U.S. Olympic team administered mental health screening of all its athletes before they left for Tokyo, according to the Associated Press.
“For every athlete going to the Games, we started doing a mental health screen,” said Dr. Jessica Bartley, director of mental health services for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, according to the AP. “And so we’re getting baseline mental health information on all of our athletes, every single sport that’s going.”
The U.S. also has a mental health support phone line for its athletes and it receives about eight calls a week, according to the AP.