The eyes of the world were on the Olympics this week and, more than any other athlete, on gymnast Simone Biles, the reigning greatest of all time in her sport.
The expectation was that Biles would lead the U.S. women's gymnastics team to its third consecutive gold medal this week. But the star athlete was way off her usual amazing game when she lost her way in midair during a vault routine on Tuesday.
Listening to her body and mind, America's superstar gymnast knew that something wasn't right. And she had the courage to do something about it; she immediately withdrew from the competition.
Biles told reporters that when she pushed off the vaulting table she experienced something gymnasts call the "twisties," a frightening feeling of not knowing where you are in midair. Physically, Biles said, she was OK. But mentally she was not in the right place to safely continue without risking injury to herself or hurting her team.
At a news conference, Biles said she thought her poor vault would jeopardize the team's chances for a medal. "I felt like it would be a little better to take a back seat, and work on my mindfulness," she said. "I didn't want the team to risk a medal because of my screw-up."
The four-time gold medal winner talked about the extreme pressure of being in the Olympics, as well as other issues that swirled around her in Tokyo.
In addition to trying to live up to her own standards and lead her young team, she was asked again about being a victim of sexual assault by Larry Nassar, the former Team USA doctor who molested hundreds of female athletes. Nassar is in prison, and Biles is believed to be the only one of his victims who is still competing.
The stunning decision by Biles should light a fire under sports organizations to do a better job of helping athletes with burnout and mental health issues. Although her withdrawal set a healthy example, trainers and coaches should never allow elite players to push themselves to the breaking point.
In addition, in areas beyond sports such as the workplace and schools, mental health needs to be taken more seriously. The struggling colleague in the next office or cubicle needs the support of co-workers and managers, too. There's still too much stigma surrounding mental illness.
But Biles and other high-profile athletes such as Olympic hero Michael Phelps are shining a light on the increasing concerns about the mental health of athletes and its impact on their physical abilities. It comes as fellow Olympian and tennis star Naomi Osaka recently withdrew from the French Open, citing mental health concerns. In a July essay for Time magazine, Osaka wrote, "It's OK not to be OK and to talk about it."
Not surprisingly, not all in the toxic worlds of social media and talk radio embrace that openness and vulnerability. Cowards on Twitter were quick to attack Biles, blaming her for the team's silver medal finish and questioning the severity of her struggles.
But Biles, showing courage in the face of disappointment, had the right answer for the criticism. "At the end of the day, we're human, too," the gymnast said. "We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do."