When Simone Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, decided to pull out of the team gymnastics competition at the 2020 Tokyo games this week, she made a brave decision, according to a fellow gymnastics icon.
“I really commended her courageous decision to listen to her inner voice and do what was best for her and her mental health, as well as to ward off any possible injury,” Dominique Dawes, also a legendary Olympic gold medal gymnast, told BET.com.
Dawes’ comment came hours after USA Gymnastics announced on Wednesday (July 28) that Biles will not compete in Thursday’s individual all-round competition and would focus on her mental health. She said that she did not want to “second guess” herself and risk the team’s chance of medaling. They went on to win the silver, but the Russian Olympic Committee team took the gold.
“We wholeheartedly support Simone’s decision and applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being. Her courage shows, yet again, why she is a role model for so many,” the statement said.
Dawes, a three-time Olympian who won a gold medal at the 1996 games in Atlanta, said she understood what Biles was facing and knows why she made her decision.
“As a 15-year-veteran in gymnastics, I went through a great deal of mental block,” said Dawes, 44. “It’s very scary, and to have to fight through that during an Olympic Games would be quite challenging.”
Biles sent shockwaves when she withdrew on Tuesday from team finals at the Tokyo games.
After performing a faulty vault in the team competition, Biles told her coaches and teammates that she needed to step down from team competition, according to Sports Illustrated.
Biles, who has a reputation for perfect vaults, later said, “I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health,” according to SI.
She reportedly lost her bearings in the air while performing the complex and dangerous Amanar vault.
In an Instagram post after the preliminaries, Biles shared, “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” the message said.
“I could completely relate to that,” Dawes said, pointing to the high expectations of Biles after winning four gold medals at the 2016 Olympics, serving as the team’s leader, and being “vocal about the needed change” in gymnastics.
Biles, 24, told NBC’s Today show in April that she was returning to the Olympics to push for change after the sexual abuse scandal involving former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of abusing several members of the team, including Biles. He was later sentence to more than 100 years in prison.
Dawes said she knew Nassar for nearly 10 years of her childhood. The sexual abuse scandal prompted her to open the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy to provide a safe, supportive and empowering environment for young gymnasts.
“What he did was take advantage of very vulnerable young girls who were being abused in a very harsh culture,” Dawes explained.
“Many of the girls were dealing with verbal abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse. We were already very uncomfortable. You could see us crying out, in practice and in training. And what he did is he took advantage of these young girls,” she continued.
As the first Black person to win an individual Olympic gymnastics medal, Dawes also understands the stress of being an African-American woman competing in a sport dominated by white athletes.
“I felt a great deal of pressure because I knew that many young girls of color, and young boys of color were looking at gymnastics as something that they could maybe excel in,” she stated.
Biles’ revelation about mental health struggles came after tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from two grand slam tournaments earlier this year.
Tennis officials fined the world No. 2 player after she declined to speak to the media during the French Open in May, citing a lack of concern for her mental health during press conferences.
Osaka unexpectedly lost in the early rounds of the Olympics. It was a huge disappointment for many in her native Japan, as The New York Times reported.
Osaka, whose mother is Japanese and father Haitian, faced harsh criticism from other tennis players who argued that press conferences are part of her responsibility, Dawes noted.
“No, her responsibility is to ensure that Naomi Osaka is healthy,” Dawes said. “She knows herself and she needs to listen to her inner voice. I commend her for that.”
Dawes doesn’t envy the added pressure from social media that the young athletes endure.
She recalled gathering with teammates after the 1996 Olympics to read comments on message boards about their performance.
“People will say something to lift you up and put you on a pedestal, and the next person will want to tear you right down,” she said. “These athletes endure far more pressure from the outside world than I can ever imagine.”