When we look back at Simone Biles' shocking exit on Tuesday from the U.S. Olympic Women's Gymnastics team final — and look back we will, over and over again, for the days and weeks to come — we will do so with the benefit of hindsight. "I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me but damn sometimes it's hard hahaha!" the 24-year-old gymnast had apologetically revealed on Instagram after the qualification round this weekend, where she was described by The Wall Street Journal as having made "an uncharacteristic number of significant errors." Before that, in an interview with The New York Times conducted prior to her flight to Tokyo, she was asked about the "happiest moment of her career."
"Honestly, probably my time off," Biles replied.
The warnings were all there; Biles has not hidden the immense, suffocating pressure she's been under. Still, there will be those who slam her withdrawal (the circumstances of which are, at the time of publication, still murky, but were initially described as "a mental issue") as being evidence of her failure. It is exactly the opposite: what Simone Biles did on Tuesday is more impressive than winning.
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Biles' critics will likely point to her embrace of the Greatest of All Time title as a justification for slamming her decision. But Biles, a survivor of Larry Nassar, has never been dishonest with her fans about her motivations. In an interview with Today's Hoda Kotb in April, Biles said that she was returning to the Games in Tokyo not out of a drive to prove herself as the greatest gymnast ever, but because "I feel like if there weren't a remaining survivor in the sport, they would've just brushed it to the side." Her return to the mat is as much about accountability as it is competition.
And while we don't know fully yet what happened on Tuesday, we're well aware that overwhelming expectation can crush young athletes. Biles' exit from the team finals has obvious parallels to another young superstar, tennis player Naomi Osaka, who pulled out of the French Open to enormous criticism earlier this year in order to protect her mental health. The strength required to do so — when you know the coming backlash, the disappointed fans, and the let-down teammates — is enormous, unfathomable. To insist Biles should have simply pushed on would be not only unfeeling, but ignorant of the fact that what she did out of self-preservation was so much harder.
Reacting on Tuesday, Rio 2016 gymnast Aly Raisman said she was "praying" for her former teammate. "She's human, and I think sometimes people forget that," Raisman said. "And Simone, just like everyone else, is doing the best that she can."
If that's not good enough, then that's entirely and exclusively on us.
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