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Catholics see challenging balance in Simone Biles’ decisions at Olympics

WASHINGTON (CNS) — When Simone Biles, described as the world’s greatest gymnast, announced July 27 she would not be competing in a team event with the US women’s Olympics gymnastics team and the next day withdrew from the all-around final, many people were shocked, but many supported her decision to prioritise her mental health.

Counsellors and spiritual directors at Catholic colleges and ministries who spoke with Catholic News Service echoed a similar view and also said her action opened up a broader and much-needed discussion about the importance of mental health care.

Biles, the four-time Olympic gold medallist, told reporters she was not in the right state of mind to continue the competition after she completed one fewer than planned mid-air twists in the team’s first event and uncharacteristically stumbled on her landing.

Later, she said she had experienced as a “little bit of the twisties,” an almost quaint term used by gymnasts that belies its meaning of losing control of one’s body while in the air.

That particular sensation is one most Olympics viewers likely can’t even begin to relate to, but the feeling of “fighting all those demons,” which Biles said she had been doing along with a sense of the “weight of the world” on her shoulders, is something non-Olympic stars can grasp on one level.

“Even if we aren’t carrying around the pressure of performing as one of the greatest athletes of all time, we are all susceptible to the undercurrents in our culture that preach grit, grind and pushing through,” wrote Zac Davis, associate editor of America magazine.

In a July 28 column, he said Biles’ decision put her in a “new public role of spiritual director” by showing that “impulses to be the best do not need to rule over our lives.”

It also places her on a platform with other high-profile athletes who also have spoken about mental health including Michael Phelps, US Olympic gold medal swimmer, and Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, who recently withdrew from the French Open.

“In some ways (these athletes) are ‘coming out’ to educate those who work with them” — parents, coaches and administrators — that mental health is an issue that needs attention, said Jason Parcover, director of the Counseling Center at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore.

“When we see professional athletes, especially those we revere in so many ways, acknowledge they too have a mental health issue and it’s important to get help for it and learn to manage it, that really gives everyone else more permission to do the same,” he added.


Take care of yourself

Biles, who is Catholic, has spoken of her dad’s constant reminder not to waste God’s gift of her talent and to use it to the best of her ability.

In her autobiography, Courage to Soar, written in 2016, she mentions that her confirmation name is Sebastian, from the patron saint of athletes. That same year she told US Weekly magazine that she sometimes has a statue of St Sebastian in her bag along with a rosary from her mom.

Sr Joanne Belloli, a Sister of the Precious Blood of Dayton, Ohio, and a mental health counsellor with Livingston County Catholic Charities in Howell, Michigan, for almost 20 years, applauded Biles’ decision.

She said in her work she frequently sees people having to make very difficult decisions and that their strength often comes from recognising their weaknesses.

She said Biles “made a wise decision” and also gave her points for staying and supporting her teammates, noting: “Sometimes you need to take care of yourself and still take care of others.”

Dominican Sister Jean Schaaf, Assistant Chaplain at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, similarly emphasised Biles’ support and encouragement of her teammates and also mentioned the added pressure on all the Olympic athletes competing during the pandemic.

For Biles, you add to that “being an elite competitor, a minority and someone who has experienced trauma,” then is it even more amazing to see her resilience, she added.

The day after Biles’ announcement, Rachel Annunziato, a professor of psychology at Fordham University, a Jesuit-run school in New York, talked about it in one of her classes.

She told CNS in an email, “Given the collective trauma we are all going through (coupled with the traumatic experiences the US gymnastics team has faced), I think having a sense of one’s limits when it comes to safeguarding emotional and physical well-being is incredibly important and insightful.”

Her comment brings attention to yet another issue: the long-time impact of abuse and the lingering lack of trust in USA Gymnastics after accounts in The Indianapolis Star said the group’s executives had failed to report teams members’ allegations of sexual abuse to authorities.

Over 265 gymnasts, including Biles, accused USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexually assaulting them. In 2018, he was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison.