TOKYO, Japan, August 9, 2021–Olympic swimmers Michael Phelps and Caeleb Dressel understood what gymnast Simone Biles was going through during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The greatest gymnast of all times withdrew from most of her gymnastics events after being heavily favored. She shared with the world that she was experiencing the twisties. Her mind and body were not in sync so she decided to put her mental and physical health ahead of winning.
Biles told reporters, “Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out. I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being. We have to protect our body and our mind. It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”
Dressel, who won five gold medals in Tokyo, came to Biles’ defense during an NBC interview.
“Every individual is different,” Dressel said. “That’s why I’m not going to speak on anyone else’s behalf. That’s why I’m okay with the call that Simone did.”
Like many others that offered Biles support, Dressel believes that the only one that knows what’s best for her is Biles.
“No one else’s opinion matters because they’re not the one in her situation,” Dressel said. “She’s literally the best to ever do it, and everyone wants to chime in. Just leave her alone.”
Dressel shared his own experience with stress during the Olympics. He said that at times, the experience could be “too much.”
“I’ve had a couple breakdowns. It does pile up,” Dressel said. Despite the stress, he added that the pressure was “worth it.”
Part of the reason he was able to handle the emotional toll of the Games is that he had a shoulder to lean on in Phelps, winner of eight gold medals and now retired.
“I texted [Phelps] more than my wife at these Games,” Dressel said. “I really leaned on him. And why would I not?”
Phelps, Dressel and other athletes are pleased that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be remembered for the spotlight on mental health and how it will help young up-and-coming athletes as well as elite athletes.
Phelps said he identified with the monumental pressure and mental strain on Biles and other athletes.
Phelps said Biles’ story “broke my heart” and that he hopes it will serve as a springboard for more public conversations that can de-stigmatize mental health and mental well-being.
“I hope this is an eye-opening experience, I really do,” Phelps said. “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.”
Phelps has been open about his own mental health struggles and battle with depression in the past, and said Biles’ withdrawal and decision to prioritize her health is a teachable moment.
“It’s so important, especially to teach kids at a young age, to take control of their physical and mental health,” Phelps said. “You guys hear me talk about that so much, if we’re not taking care of both, how are we ever expecting to be 100 percent?”
Phelps founded the Michael Phelps Foundation, which promotes swimming along with a healthy lifestyle for youngsters. He believes his public appearances and talking about his struggles with depression are helping others.
Phelps shares his mental health story and empowering benefits of therapy in collaboration with Talkspace, a company in online therapy.
“Mental health over the last 18 months is something people are talking about,” Phelps said. “We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect. So yes, it is OK not to be OK.”
The International Olympic Committee developed the Athlete365 website which surveyed more than 4,000 athletes in early 2020. The results led the IOC to shift its tone from sports performance and results to mental health and uplifting the athlete’s voices.
Content was created for various social media platforms to feature current Olympians championing mental heath causes. And the Olympic State of Mind series on Olympics.com shares compilations of mental health stories and podcasts.
“Are we doing enough? I hope so. I think so,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “But like everyone in the world, we are doing more on this issue.”
Sharon Robb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org