Simone Biles is the most decorated gymnast in World Champion history. At 25, the record-breaking athlete has earned 32 Olympic and World Champion medals and rocked the gymnastics world with her never-before-seen skills. Biles’s consistency and determination have earned her some of the biggest accolades of her athletic career. But that same resolve led to a tipping point in her mental health journey that she was forced to confront before the entire world at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
On April 27, cybersecurity company Axonius released an interview with Biles in which she reflects on some of the biggest setbacks of her athletic career and how those moments helped shape her mental health journey. Over dinner with her family — including her father, Ron Biles; her mother, Nellie Biles; her sister, Adria Biles; and her best friend, Rachel Moore — Biles explains that her personal well-being took a backseat to her hunger for success over the years, culminating in a moment of anxiety that caused her body and mind to “shut down.”
Simone Biles at the 2013 Classics
In July 2013, as her name began to shift into the spotlight, Biles competed at the US Classics gymnastics tournament. During the competition, she fell several times and twisted her ankle during a floor exercise. Heartbroken, Biles cut the event short and did not perform her vault routine. Following the “disastrous” competition, Biles experienced a drastic drop in her self-confidence. With support from her family, friends, and teammates, she began seeing a sports psychologist, who taught her to focus less on perfection and more on enjoying the sport.
“For a while, I saw a psychologist once every two weeks,” Biles said in an interview with Health in 2019. “That helped me get in tune with myself so that I felt more comfortable and less anxious.”
“The stakes were high, and I think I just freaked out. I think it just put life back into perspective that gymnastics isn’t everything.”
“The 2013 Classics, for me, [were] kind of a turning point, not only because it was so disastrous, but afterward, I got the proper help that I needed,” she says in the Axonius interview, speaking to her father, who insists she was “very reluctant” to get help. “I went to visit a sports psychologist — though, I didn’t want to. You guys took me there to kind of find the joy in gymnastics again because I was so nervous about all eyes being on me at the time and it just was not a very good meet.”
Recalling her mindset at the time, Biles continues, “I just think I was overwhelmed with the atmosphere. It was my first year [as a] senior; I could potentially make the [World Championship] team. The stakes were high, and I think I just freaked out. I think it put life back into perspective that gymnastics isn’t everything.”
Simone Biles at the 2013 World Championship
In October 2013, Biles qualified to compete at her first World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Antwerp, Belgium. She was also the first American gymnast to qualify for the all-around and all four final events since Shannon Miller in 1991. Despite an outstanding performance that earned her a winning score of 60.216, Biles was overwhelmed with feelings of imposter syndrome as she stepped onto the mat.
“I definitely didn’t think I belonged there because I was with world champions,” she tells her family. “Our coordinator was like, ‘You know what? If you don’t have a name for yourself, go out there and make a name for yourself. Who cares what happens? You’re basically a nobody.’ And I was like, ‘You’re right.'”
Even after winning gold, Biles found it difficult to believe that she was able to hold her own among the other successful gymnasts in the competition. “I’m out here competing with all of these girls that have been previous world champions or have been to numerous [World Championships] and the Olympics, so I just thought it was really cool that I finally got to be in their shoes and be a part of that,” she says.
Simone Biles at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics
At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (held in 2021), Biles made headlines after she withdrew from the competition at the last minute, a difficult decision she said she made for the sake of her mental health and the sake of her teammates. “Those girls had worked their whole entire lives [for that moment], and I couldn’t be the one to put them out of medal contention,” she says. “That would be too selfish.”
After years of soaring above and beyond everything that was expected of her, Biles had reached her breaking point. “I went out there and I messed up, but it was good for people to see because they didn’t think I was human — and for me to see. Not to experience — because it was very scary — but to see like, ‘Oh, OK, some people do have off days. How are we going to deal with it?’ I’d never had to do that before.”
“I’m more than gymnastics, which I never thought I was going to be.”
Her decision to step back was one that her teammates wholeheartedly supported and one that those closest to her are proud she was able to make. “I think you opened a door for so many athletes to really be able to take a step back and put their mental health first,” Moore says.
It took nearly a decade for Biles to prioritize her mental health and self-care, but she’s relieved that she’s finally able to separate herself from her work and take the breaks she needs for the sake of her well-being. “For so many years, I’ve suppressed all the feelings and everything, and I couldn’t do it anymore,” she says. “My body and my mind literally shut down and were like, ‘Simone, you can’t do this anymore. You have to take a break. Unfortunately, it’s at the Olympics, but we’re shutting your body off right now. Good luck.’ It was a really good wake-up call for me to at least take care of my mind and body for once because for so many years I had pushed that off. It’s really nice, but it also gave me a lesson of like, I’m more than gymnastics, which I never thought I was going to be.”