The best opener I could imagine for a piece like this is Mike Tirico’s “it deserves discussion,” where he says what we have all been thinking for a while now. If your 2020 experience did not bring up mental health issues, I need the name of your therapist—because she prepped you well for this pandemic.
When Tirico closes out another jaw-dropping night of athletic prowess, he says, #5 “along with greatness, can come frailty,” and suggests that the conversations we will have after this Olympics will help us all talk about mental health more openly. Wow, that’s not typically how they close out the primetime coverage of the Olympics. But has anything been typical since March 2020? Some athletes thought they were headed to Tokyo but didn’t make it due to the postponement. Some would have never made it in 2020—didn’t even qualify age-wise—and are there now in 2021. Then there’s the majority of Japanese citizens who weren’t thrilled about opening up their country to international athletes, potentially bringing more stress to this crippling pandemic. Massive change after shockwaves before total devastation, with some controversy thrown in. Yup, that’s been our 2020…2021 (…oh, dear Lord, please let it end!) How about yours?
The only comment I might add is Tirico closes with a wish for Simone Biles to find joy. While he has the best intentions, and she may desire joy as well, it begs the question is it joy that fixes us? Maybe peace? Isn’t a fulfilling life incomplete without joy and sorrow, peace and struggle? Maybe another GOAT has the answer…
Michael Phelps offered his support to Simone with his tagline #4 “It’s OK to not be OK.”
Thank you MP, you’re an MVP. I don’t feel joyful all the time. Some days I have zero joy. Zilch. Nada. That’s ok, right? Turns out it’s so right we need to start saying this out loud, in front of our children, from the get-go. It’s definitely OK to not be OK after the year+ we have all had. It’s been my biggest parenting lesson to be able to tell my three little Olympians, it’s ok to be mad; or it’s ok to be sad, I am here for you; or just how are you feeling? I’ll listen.
We were all listening during Simone’s mic-drop exit (which turned out to be a week-long pause) from the Olympics because, you know, #3 “it’s been a long year.” She laid out her truth in the press conference afterward. The world responded—in typical fashion. But here’s a good summary of what you may not know this all means, in terms of gymnastics. What she did undoubtedly took guts, determination, and wisdom beyond her years. We have to remember it didn’t all happen on camera—she had been struggling for some time, physically and mentally. She knew it was time to call it. Oftentimes we don’t see athletes quit until they’re being taken off on a stretcher. I’d prefer my children see Simone’s example.
Hoda Kotb agreed when she said hopefully this wouldn’t be the last we see of Simone. But if it was, if this was the way she went out, #2 “…it was beautiful just like that.” There is beauty in failure. Admitting it, being vulnerable in it. Who hasn’t failed?! We have to believe these elite athletes have failed more times than we can even imagine. It may happen on camera, and true fans support their teams when they’re winning or not.
By the way, Hoda is a great representation of what positive support from media can mean to athletes, their families, and setting an example for kindness in this world. She even goes on to interrupt her co-host to tell Biles’ mother, “She’s all right, we got her.”
And Simone didn’t even really fail. She came back. She got back up on the podium to compete, and she won! Not her typical gold medal, but a bronze. And it might just be her biggest accomplishment. Or at least the most meaningful. You don’t always go out on top. In my gymnastics career, I peaked at the right time. I was at my best, winning competitions in my junior year, and even bringing home my own bronze medal from nationals my senior year. All in front of the college coaches recruiting me. This was back when NCAA rules stipulated a strictly regulated timeframe for athletes to be sent letters, spoken to, visited, then invited to campus—before verbal agreements and official signing days. But with all that perfectly coordinated timing, I still remember college coaches visiting and having to train while sick or injured. You survive, that’s all you can do. You keep trying to survive through college, but for some, like me, it didn’t work out quite like you planned. Now looking back, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been happier and healthier bowing out after high school. My body sure could have used the break after 15 years of pounding and stretching beyond reasonable human expectations. My spirit—I wouldn’t say it crushed me. I went on to UT-Austin and had the time of my life. I’ve always said the times I was flying the highest were just before the biggest falls. And that’s life on repeat, right? What do I honor the most about my athletic career? That I really did feel like I was flying… and the discipline, resiliency, and guts it taught me. But mainly, I thought I could fly.
Naomi Osaka said lighting the Olympic Torch in Tokyo was her #1 “greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life.”
There you go. If the best thing about being THE BEST in your sport is not the sport itself, maybe it’s time to reframe what we deem as the best and perhaps how we find joy and peace and meaning in our lives.
Above all, there is little-to-no doubt that we cannot go back to shoving mental health into the dark corners of society. When the best and brightest lights in our world are shouting this from the top of the Olympic rings, it might be time to do more than just listen. Like so many things the pandemic has brought to the forefront, nearly every aspect of mental health needs to change. Mental health is not just something we should open our hearts and minds to, it’s something we need help with. We all need help—even Olympians.