Simone Biles Says Walking Out of Tokyo Olympics Event Was ‘My Biggest Win’

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The champion gymnast spoke with author Brené Brown as part of the Simmons Leadership Conference on Wednesday

Simon Biles

Simone Biles faced criticism after pulling out of multiple events at the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health last summer. But the American gymnast and four-time Olympic gold medalist says that she sees making that choice as a victory.

“Walking away from the Olympic Games was a win in itself. I know a lot of people thought I failed because they expected me to go out with five or six medals, but walking out of it was my biggest win,” Biles said on Wednesday at the 43rd annual Simmons Leadership Conference, in conversation with Brené Brown. “I had to put myself into consideration for one of the first times throughout my career. Most of the time, I’ve always put myself on the back burner, because I’ve always cared and thought about everybody else before myself.”

She continued, “I was like, ‘You know what? I have to do what’s best for me, what’s safe, and what’s healthy for me.’ ”

Simon Biles

Biles said she considered pushing forward and competing despite grappling with the twisties, a disorienting condition that causes gymnasts to lose air awareness, but determined that ultimately, it would be a selfish decision.

“That would be so selfish of me to put the team’s medal contention in jeopardy, put myself in jeopardy,” said Biles, who admitted her “mind and body were not in sync” when she pulled out of the gymnastics team competition mid-event. “I had to be like, ‘Simone, it’s okay. It’s not the end of the world, it’s just sports. If you walk away from this and you still are walking, that’s a win in your book.’ ”

Now, she asserts that her decision was “probably the most courageous I’ve ever been.”

“I had worked for five years and I didn’t want to let that dream go. I had to put myself first, listen to my mind and body, what my heart was telling me to do,” Biles recalled. “I had to put my pride aside and say, ‘Okay, this isn’t going to work.’ ”

Biles ultimately removed herself from four out of five event finals but won the bronze in the balance beam, and still earned the silver with Team USA.

The athlete recounted noticing things were off when she and her teammates arrived in Tokyo, calling the experience “very lonely.” The restrictions of the pandemic had put a hamper on the traditional Olympic experience, she said during the leadership conference.

“We go over to Tokyo and no audience is allowed, we’re quarantined in our rooms, and can only come out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everyone expected us to perform in a certain manner. There was no camaraderie, and my parents weren’t able to go there,” Biles remembered. “My parents haven’t missed a competition in my life.”

She added, “For the world to expect some of these athletes to go above and beyond when we’re all going through the same thing and trying to survive a pandemic was really strange for me mentally.”

After the Olympics, Biles had to face critique from the general public. That was a challenge, particularly on social media. But Biles said during the chat with Brown that she chose to disregard “all of that,” and now finds strength in being vulnerable.

To her surprise, people began coming up to her on the street and congratulated her for making the choice to withdraw , saying she changed their lives.

“I would be so confused,” Biles said. ” ‘You guys I didn’t complete, why are you congratulating me?’ ”

These days, Biles has a thorough self-care practice to stay on an even keel. She relies on weekly therapy sessions to “get out of my own head,” and enjoys writing in a journal or talking to herself in front of the mirror. Still, negative self-talk can get in the way.

“I’ve struggled with that growing up and to this day. Everybody’s going to tell you you’re good enough. My strength is I like proving people wrong and going above and beyond,” she said during the panel. “That’s what I like to do.”

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