Simone Biles is a National Hero, and (Surprise) Its Not Because of Gymnastics

"Our society tends to regard as a sickness any mode of thought or behavior that is inconvenient for the system" --Theodore Kaczynski

(TW: Discussion of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation)

Hello again friends!

I hope all of you are having a fantastic first day of August. I am currently soaking in the salty breeze in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. We are staying with family who I haven't seen in over 3 years, and I almost didn't recognize my two nieces when I saw them. Hopefully the upcoming days will give me some much needed rest and relaxation. Currently, my plans are as follows: horseback riding, swimming, a day trip to see the USS North Carolina, and cheering on our resident demigod-athletes in Tokyo. Originally, my nieces and I were going to watch the gymnastic events together--the youngest loves gymnastics and has been insistent that I see all of the jumps, cartwheels, and feats of flexibility that she has accomplished. I would be lying if I said that I hadn't been looking forward to seeing Simone Biles' awe-inspiring exploits of athleticism. However, as the world has seen over the last week, that may not come to be. In a shocking twist of events, Biles--who is widely accepted to be the best gymnast of all time--withdrew herself from the team competition after an under-rotation on her first vault attempt. Later, she revealed that the pressure from the world to win had deeply affected her mental health, and that she had lost confidence in herself to safely complete the dangerous skills that she was known for. After Biles' announcement, support poured in from people around the world, but not everyone was as sympathetic to the gymnast's situation as others. Aaron Reitz, deputy Attorney General in Biles' home state of Texas, called her a "selfish, childish national embarrassment" in a post on Twitter. Piers Morgan--a controversial British TV personality who recently came under fire for his remarks about Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex's statements to the media about her mental health after her marriage into the British Royal Family--also criticized Biles's exit from the competition, implying that she was using her mental health as an excuse for poor performance.

Simone Biles is a high profile example of recent public emphasis on mental health and its importance. For years, discussing ones mental state was frowned upon if not downright discouraged. Ailments such as depression and anxiety were issues meant to be suffered alone. However, in recent years, it has become more socially acceptable and encouraged to be upfront and honest about ones mental health. We live in a country that places extreme emphasis on performance and ambition, yet for years we ignored what was necessary to maintain those same two goals. What began as a trickle--the occasional actress leaving Twitter, or a singer cancelling a concert--turned into a tidal wave as Naomi Osaka drew international attention when she withdrew from the Roland Garros tennis tournament, and superstar swimmer and Olympic record-setter Michael Phelps openly admitted to struggling with suicidal ideation.

What happens in the public spotlight often mirrors what happens behind the scenes as well. What USAG and the world is to Simone Biles, a strict and uncompromising boss and their superiors is to your everyday worker. Overtime is expected, work-life balance an afterthought, and support virtually non-existent. An unexpected silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been what many workers realized was an opportunity to start afresh. Former service industry workers found jobs that paid them more with less of the abuse characteristic of hospitality work, and office workers are beginning to fight for the right to work from home. Many companies are being forced to listen--a record-setting 52% of workers in North America are considering looking for new employment. To put in some perspective, that number was only 15% before the pandemic.

As someone who has struggled with my mental health for years, I will be the first to admit that it has been frustrating to confront the stigma associated with mental health. I was afraid that revealing how I really felt would alienate my friends and family, and that the little voice in the back of my head telling me that I was alone would be right. Sometimes I would reveal a little bit to someone I trusted, only to have them treat me differently afterwards. I can relate to how Simone feels: as a musician, you're expected to always be perfect, hit every note, and make it look effortless. When I made a mistake or felt that I could have performed better, not only was I disappointed in myself, but oftentimes it would also lead to intense scrutiny and criticism from my instructors until I was perfect again. The pressure of the constant evaluation and so called "constructive criticism" that was really just thinly-veiled, passive-aggressive versions of "you aren't trying hard enough" eventually took its toll on me--as my anxiety built up, I began to struggle with skills and music that I could normally pull off flawlessly--and eventually I ended up quitting to protect what remained of my fragile mental health. I lost something that was such a huge part of myself that I didn't even know what do afterwards. The fear and uncertainty that led up to that decision was almost overwhelming, but looking back I know I made the right decision. Watching Simone during the team competition was like watching a mirror of what had happened to me. The difference between us is that the world is watching Simone Biles. Not only did she handle her exit with the poise and grace of someone much older and wiser, she demonstrated a level of maturity that many people would never be able to accomplish.

So Simone Biles is a national hero. Her voice is powerful--by speaking out about the pressure the world has put on her, she has triggered a national conversation about the pressure we put on our athletes. Jokes on TikTok posted before the Games calling Team USA "hot immortal demigods" suddenly don't hit quite as well now. By insisting she stay on the sidelines for the all-around, vault, and uneven bars competition as well, she demonstrates how the discourse surrounding mental health has changed. Its no longer expected for people to be like Kerri Strug and continue on in the face of injury, all in the name of accomplishment and being the best. America as a whole likes to think that we are always the best at everything, and it used to be that we would do anything to prove that point. But not so. Now, when the going gets tough, the tough don't get tougher. They withdraw from competition.

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