After Simone Biles made the difficult decision to put her mental health first and opt out of participating in the gymnastic’s team event at the Tokyo Olympics, one former Olympian who knows “the weight of gold” spoke out in support. 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps voiced his support for Biles, and shared his perspective on the unique experience of balancing mental health with athletic performance on the world stage. Phelps joined NBC commentators and opened up to Mike Tirico about the distinct mental strain an event such as the Olympics can put on an athlete, regardless of how many times they’ve been there before.
“The Olympics is overwhelming,” Phelps shared. “The easiest way for me to say this is athletes, and Olympic athletes in general — we need someone who we can trust, somebody that can let us be ourselves and listen. Allow us to become vulnerable. Somebody who’s not going to try to fix us,” Phelps said. “We carry a lot of weight on our shoulders, and it’s challenging.”
"We're human beings. Nobody is perfect. So yes, it is okay to not be okay."@MichaelPhelps reacts to the news of Simone Biles pulling out of the women's gymnastics team final. #TokyoOlympics pic.twitter.com/Jl2gmi7ORu
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) July 28, 2021
Phelps revealed that the pressure only grows when “we have the lights on us and all of these expectations that are being thrown on top of us.” Upon shifting focus to Biles’ decision, Phelps confessed that it “broke my heart,” but noted the great strides that are being taken to de-stigmatize mental health struggles. “Mental health, over the last 18 months, is something that people are talking about,” he said. Among athletes, mental health has become part of a more open, holistic approach to fitness, thanks in part to athletes like Naomi Osaka and more.
Phelps, himself, has been incredibly forthcoming about his own struggles with his mental health, namely depression and suicidal ideation following the 2012 Olympics in London. He even disclosed that “it was hard” for him to ask for help when he needed it most during those difficult times. “I felt like I was carrying, as Simone said, the weight of the world on [my] shoulders.”
More than anything, Phelps said he hopes “this is an eye-opening experience, I really do. I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board, and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we can ever imagine.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, you should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or reach Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. You can also head to your nearest emergency room or call 911.
Before you go, click here to see 15 times Simone Biles defied gravity.