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Simone Biles Reminds Us That Even Superstars Feel The Pressure

Simone Biles looks on during the artistic gymnastics women's team final during the Tokyo Olympic Games on Tuesday.
Loic Venance
AFP via Getty Images
Simone Biles looks on during the artistic gymnastics women's team final during the Tokyo Olympic Games on Tuesday.

Updated July 27, 2021 at 12:16 PM ET

Simone Biles' withdrawal from team competition in Tokyo shocked Olympics viewers, but it followed years of stress and pressure on the greatest gymnast of all time.

Biles says mental health concerns prompted her to pull out of the U.S. team's much-anticipated showdown with Russia on Tuesday.

Afterward, she amplified her comments from one day earlier, when she acknowledged that the immense pressure she faces has been affecting her.

"It's been really stressful, this Olympic Games," Biles said, noting the unusual conditions in Tokyo, where the public can't attend competitions.

"It's been a long week, it's been a long Olympic process, it's been a long year," she added.

"I think we're just a little bit too stressed out," she said. "But we should be out here having fun — and sometimes that's not the case."

The U.S. women drew on their depth and talent to claim silver in the final. But the team — with Biles wearing white warmups instead of a competition leotard — also watched its decade-long reign of dominance come to an end.

Biles confirmed that she had not suffered a physical injury — but she also said part of the reason for withdrawing was her concern that she might "do something silly" and hurt herself during the competition. She also said her teammates should be proud of themselves.

By speaking openly about her struggle to get into the right mindset for the team final, Biles became the latest star athlete to address the mental aspects of high-stakes competition — and the struggles that are often invisible to the public.

Biles recently called the Olympics "no joke"

On Sunday, Biles helped the U.S. qualify for the team final — but she did not turn in one of the flawless, jaw-dropping performances that have made her a superstar. On Monday, she acknowledged feeling some nerves.

"[I]t wasn't an easy day or my best but I got through it. I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times," Biles said via Instagram. "I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn't affect me but damn sometimes it's hard hahaha! The olympics is no joke!" she said.

Simone Biles competes in the vault event of the artistic gymnastics women's team final before withdrawing during the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday.
Martin Bureau / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Biles competes in the vault event of the women's gymnastics team final before withdrawing during the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday.

The gymnast looked uncomfortable again on Tuesday, despite the U.S.-Russia rotation starting on the vault, one of her signature events. She scaled down her planned vault from a 2 1/2 twist to a 1 1/2 — but Biles still took a long forward hop on her landing.

Moments later, Biles was seen hugging her teammates. A microphone in the arena captured her encouraging them to do their best without her.

Biles has endured five long years since Rio

Biles stormed the gym at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, using her strength, talent and fearlessness to win five gold medals. She topped the leader board in every event she entered, except for the balance beam.

But immediately after the 2016 Olympics, revelations emerged that USA Gymnastics had failed to protect young and vulnerable gymnasts from abuse by coaches — and gymnasts began stepping forward to accuse the disgraced former team doctor Larry Nassar. In early 2018, Biles went public with her own story of abuse.

"I've felt a bit broken and the more I try to shut off the voice in my head the louder it screams," she said at the time.

In 2019, with the Tokyo Olympics looming, Biles became the most decorated gymnast in world championship history — male or female. She claimed five of the six gold medals that were on offer in Stuttgart, Germany, bringing her career total to 25 medals.

Biles seemed poised to cement her legacy at her second Games. But five months after the world championships, a pandemic was declared — and Olympic officials later decided to delay the Tokyo Games by a full year.

Simone Biles competes at the balance beam during qualification at the Olympic Games on Sunday in Tokyo.
Tom Weller / DeFodi Images via Getty Images
DeFodi Images via Getty Images
Biles competes on the balance beam during qualification at the Olympic Games on Sunday in Tokyo.

The postponement hit Biles hard, according to a recent feature in The New York Times, which reports that the most talented gymnast of all time did not want to prolong her relationship with USA Gymnastics by another year.

It was one more complication for Biles, as she looks to define both her legacy and herself, while urging her teammates to win on the world's biggest stage.

"It's like, OK, get here and be done," Biles told the Times. "You want it to come, but you also don't want it to end."

What's next for Biles?

Team USA officials told NPR earlier Tuesday that Biles "will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions."

That suggests her status will be evaluated ahead of the five individual competitions she has qualified for.

The women's all-around competition is slated for Thursday, giving Biles a day to rest before an event she was expected to dominate. The vault and uneven bars kick off the single-apparatus competitions on Sunday.

"We're going to take it a day at a time," Biles said. "It will be a good mental rest, and we'll take it from there."

Biles joins other athletes who cite the toll of mental stress

In pointing to the mental toll and stress of coping with high expectations and extreme attention, Biles joins tennis star Naomi Osaka — another high-profile athlete who has spoken out this year about her need to take care of her mental health.

Osaka, 23, withdrew from the French Open after stating her desire to avoid news conferences, citing her anxiety about speaking in public and her struggles with depression. She also skipped Wimbledon.

Prominent athletes such as NBA star Steph Curry, British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith and tennis legend Venus Williams issued their own statements to support Osaka and to praise her for making her own well-being a priority. "[S]tay strong ... I admire your vulnerability," American tennis player Coco Gauff told Osaka. Like Biles and Osaka, the 17-year-old has also faced the glare of public attention at a very early age because of her amazing abilities.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.