This past summer, four time gold medalist Simone Biles started a conversation on mental health when she chose to step out of the competition. Some people were furious saying she should have ignored her symptoms and competed anyway. Others were applauding Biles for her bravery.
Behind the scenes, there was an ongoing court case involving a former US gymnastics doctor being accused of sexually abusing gymnasts in his care. After the Olympics, it was revealed that Simone Biles was one of the survivors of this abuse. I, personally, cannot imagine the pressure of performing athletically at an Olympic level, let alone doing it while coping with the trauma of being sexually abused by someone I entrusted with my medical care.
Another Olympian whose shoes I cannot imagine filling is, Mikaela Shiffrin. Not only is there no way that I could physically perform the incredible feats of skiing down a hill but I also cannot imagine losing my father. In 2020, Mikaela’s father unexpectedly passed away. She has been open about how much grief has affected her training and her passion for skiing as a result. Unfortunately, she has not had the Olympic results expected of her by the media and those in the sport considering her last Olympics. But maybe instead we consider what an incredible accomplishment it is that she returned to the sport after losing her dad. Many of us know how all consuming grief can be and she has managed to make it back to the most prestigious stage of competition for a second time.
Jessie Diggins, an Olympic Gold medalist in cross country, has shared her own journey seeking eating disorder treatment. She used her blog to share details from her experience that helped start a dialogue on a national level about eating disorders, body image and mental health. Being a very private person, I cannot imagine what it took for her to be so vulnerable and selfless as to share her journey to help normalize a condition that affects 24 million Americans (nutrition.org).
Overall, there has been a major change in how we talk about mental health in recent years. These incredible athletes and so many more who have come forward to publicly start a conversation around the topics are a huge part of it. For those of us that are not on the national stage but can relate to the criticism these athletes have received, let’s also look to them for how they have powered through and continued to pursue the passion for the sport as well as taken breaks and say “no” when they knew their brain and their body needed the space. If I owned Wheaties, I would be delighted to offer each of these athletes a spot of the box celebrating their ongoing journeys taking care of their mental health.
Written by: Mackenzie Kerber, MA, LPCC