Michael Phelps on Simone Biles: ‘The Olympics is overwhelming… it broke my heart’

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I don’t know what the Olympic coverage has been like in other countries, but here in America, there has been so much focus on Simone Biles and mental health in the past 24 hours. Simone’s withdrawal from Olympic competition yesterday was the top story in American sports and American news. It was very reminiscent of Naomi Osaka’s Instagram statements and eventual withdrawal from the French Open two months ago. In the American Olympic coverage, Simone was/is “the face” of the Tokyo Olympics, arguably the most well-known and well-liked athlete, the one NBC put in all of their promotional materials and built their TV coverage around. Who else could even understand the kind of pressure and stress she has been under? Michael Phelps, who was “the face” of American Olympic coverage in 2008, 2012 and 2016. Phelps is on the ground in Tokyo, doing commentary on Olympic swimming, but he’s been drawn into the Simone Biles story for obvious reasons. Phelps gave a wonderful interview to NBC about Biles and what’s happening:

“The Olympics is overwhelming,” the former face of the Games said to host Mike Tirico. “There’s a lot of emotions that go into it… It broke my heart. But also, if you look at it, mental health over the last 18 months is something that people are talking about.”

The former Olympian commented about “the weight of gold” the athletes face, something he too struggled with. Throughout his Olympic career, Phelps earned 28 medals—23 golds, three silvers and two bronze. He became the youngest man at 15 years old to join Team USA in 68 years when he made the team for 2000 Sydney. But even as one of the most decorated Olympians of all time, Phelps revealed in 2018 that he struggled with depression and contemplated suicide after the 2012 Olympics.

“We’re humans, right? We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect so yes, it is OK to not be OK. It’s OK to go through ups and downs and emotional roller coasters,” Phelps said to Tirico. “But I think the biggest thing is we all need to ask for help sometimes too when we go through those times. For me, I can say personally it was something very challenging. It was hard for me to ask for help. I felt like I was carrying, as Simone said, the weight of the world on [my] shoulders. It’s a tough situation. 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 and fix us. We carry a lot of things, a lot of weight on our shoulders, and it’s challenging, especially when we have the lights on us and all of these expectations being thrown on top of us.”

Phelps added that he hopes it’s an “eye-opening experience” for the United States when asked whether he thought the country could give more support to Olympians for the mental health portion of the Games.

“I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump onboard and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we can ever imagine. Look, for me when I started on this journey five years ago, I knew it was big. I knew it was going to be challenging. Five years into it now, it’s even bigger than I can comprehend. So this is something that is going to take a lot of time, a lot of hard work and people that are willing to help….If we’re not taking care of both [physical and mental health], how are we ever expecting to be 100%?”

[From Sports Illustrated]

I got caught on what Phelps said about how he hopes this is an “eye-opening experience” for US about giving more mental health support to Olympians, because it really struck me how little mental health support US Gymnastics has given Simone and the other athletes. Very specifically for US Gymnastics and Olympic Gymnastics Committee, there are layers of responsibility, liability and accountability here. It’s not just Simone and what she needs to protect herself – she’s the only woman on the US Gymnastics team left from the Larry Nassar era, and she’s been one of the loudest and most consistent voices holding US Gymnastics accountable. Simone has been open about being in therapy and dealing with not only the athletic pressures of competing, but of everything that comes with the tortured legacy of US Gymnastics’ bureaucratic complicity in the Nassar crimes. And US Gymnastics basically shrugged off their responsibility to Simone and her mental health.

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Photos courtesy of NBC screencaps, Getty and via Instagram.

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45 Responses to “Michael Phelps on Simone Biles: ‘The Olympics is overwhelming… it broke my heart’”

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  1. (TheOG) Jan90067 says:

    It is heart breaking. While we know these young kids are under immense “pressure”, we *really* DON’T *know* THAT kind of pressure in our own lives. Watching Simone on the sidelines, and doing the vaults, you could just *see* in her face she was struggling.

    Unlike other sports, where if you’ re not in “the zone” you just don’t sink a shot, or get a putt in, but in a sport like gymnastics, when one “off” move can leave you injured, paralyzed, or even dead, you can’t be “off your game”.

    Kudos and all the support for her and others who are finding the courage to stand up and advocate for themselves in *every* way, esp. mental health-wise.

    • SarahCS says:

      This is broadly what I was thinking as I read, as a total outsider to all of this I have no idea what that must actually feel like. It also feel as though not allowing family and wider team members to travel with the athletes is having (potentially) unintended consequences. I’m not saying Simone would have made a different choice of her family had been there, only she knows what she was going through, but I think for these young people (as most of them are) to be dealing with all this and the added pressure of not having a core part of their support systems can’t be helping.

      Thank goodness we are having these conversations out loud and Phelps is a fantastic spokesperson as he’s lived through it all himself.

      I’m so happy for Simone that she was able to do what she needed to do for her health and not give in to the pressure to compete.

      • Truthiness says:

        Michael Phelps could create a larger legacy by advocating here, a legacy far bigger than his 23 gold medals. We need to create space without judgment, without NBC breathing down the throats of competitors and demanding its pound of flesh. And I want Phelps to call out Piers as the POS he really is.

    • kimmy says:

      You know, when I heard the news yesterday, I will admit I was skeptical. HOWEVER, as soon as I watched that vault last night, it was so obvious. That was terrifying and you could see it on her face. The fact that she held it together enough after that and then during the competition as she supported her teammates…..that’s strength.

      • (TheOG) Jan90067 says:

        You could literally SEE the panic, even for that brief moment, where she didn’t “feel” where she was in the air, the way her arms flailed.

        It also took immense courage to pull out, to not scurry into a locker room to hide, but to STAY put for her teammates.

        Very proud of Simone and Team USA for supporting each other so completely!

    • Lilibetp says:

      Completely agree, Theog. I was thinking just that when I heard about all the jerks saying she should just suck it up and get on with it. They obviously have no idea of the danger of the sport.

  2. ncboudicca says:

    This really made me cry. I’m so glad he could speak about it. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be under that kind of pressure – and the extra negativity that Simone and Naomi get just because they’re WOC makes me even more sad.

    Good mental health and feeling supported are so, so important. This is a figurative Call to Arms for our society as a whole, and I hope humanity can rise to the occasion.

  3. Oh_Hey says:

    I’m glad another Olympian, one known for championing mental health, is defending Simone. She’s in a sport where one false move means death or paralysis- she made the right call. Also mental health is health. Period.

  4. Moxylady says:

    There are now tens of thousands of people who are saying to themselves- if Simone had the courage to put her mental needs first, I can too. If Simone needed a break, it’s ok for me to need one too.
    I didn’t think I could admire her more. I was so wrong. She’s a hero.

    • Red Dog says:

      This, 100%

    • sa says:

      I really hope you’re right.

    • whatWHAT? says:

      “I didn’t think I could admire her more. I was so wrong.”

      exactly how I feel. it takes a LOT of courage to leave a competition you’ve been training for for the last 15 months, and to back out and then STAY on the floor, with all of those eyes on you.

      and then there’s that HORRIBLE NO-GOOD PR*CK Charlie Kirk calling her a sociopath for not continuing on to rep her country. he’s awful.

  5. Becks1 says:

    I thought his interview was excellent. You could tell he had so much compassion and understanding for Simone. And he’s someone who is going to understand what she’s going through more than any one else. I remember when Phelps got the silvers and bronzes – there was always a sense of disappointment among olympic fans, a sense of “well next time he’ll do better.” Meanwhile my olympic medal display case is pretty empty, you know? I was seeing headlines on Sunday or Monday (can’t remember) about Simone not doing well and how she “messed up” or things along those lines, to the point where I assumed she had completely failed. Then I heard that she was still getting the top scores and the US was still in medal contention and I was like, wait, that’s messing up? I can’t imagine the pressure, when the world is measuring you against yourself, and “you” are the best, but someone can’t always be the best. I don’t know if that makes sense lol.

    I also think the delay from last year probably affected a lot of the athletes -they were training, gearing up for 2020 for years, and then it was canceled (as it should have been) but mentally that’s going to put you in a weird spot I think.

    Anyway I hope Simone is doing okay. I know there has been some criticism but I guess I have curated my social media well enough bc everything I am seeing is very supportive.

  6. Merricat says:

    Eff the U.S. Gymnastics people for not holding her up. They allowed horrific abuse to happen for years, and still they expected the team to bring home medals. They should have supported those young women, and they should have supported Simone.

  7. Scorpion says:

    Where was this support 5 years ago for another gymnast who was openly struggling???? Interesting time to be alive

    • Pinellas Pixie says:

      I’m grateful we’ve grown since then and Simone is getting support now. We can’t change what happened, we can only encourage and support growth both in the athletes and in our society. I’m heartbroken for Simone but very happy for the discussion around mental health.

  8. LillyfromLillooet says:

    Feeling Phelps! Great to have his perspective on this, a tremendously good and helpful interview.

    • josephine says:

      It was great. I was watching with my son, who, like so many teens, is suffering some anxiety and depression, and it was great to hear his perspective. I appreciated that he put physical and mental health on the same level and stated simply that you need both, need to work on both, need to pay attention to both. He was so straight-forward and calm and I think that was a great way to deliver the message that every single person deserves to think about and work on their mental health.

    • Sid says:

      He was also great with his commentary after Naomi Osaka announced she wouldn’t be doing post-match press during the French Open. I hope he keeps talking about this issue.

  9. Lizzie says:

    He is a lovely man. Most commentators I heard were very awkward as if they were talking about her period.

  10. Jen says:

    Does the US medical team that’s with the athletes include a sports psychologist? There hasn’t been any mention of anyone at all in that role being there for any of the competitors.

    Really good to see Phelps speaking out supportively.

    • josephine says:

      Lots of elite atheletes use sport psychologists but I think the emphasis has traditionally been on mental toughness for the sake of competition, i.e., how to win.

      • chai35 says:

        Yes, it is very individual, but I have noticed a significant increase in the number of people who are actively using them and the amount of time commentators spend talking about the fact that they exist.

      • Jenna says:

        Mentally-speaking, gymnastics is still very much a “no pain, no gain” endeavor.

  11. Moxylady says:

    For anyone interested, British retired gymnast (all of 24) Nile Wilson has a YouTube channel ans a documentary where he discusses his mental health and how vital it is and how the focus was on mindset and winning and not health

  12. DC Gal says:

    I can’t help it, I’ve always loved Michael Phelps.

  13. N0B0dy says:

    This is off topic but Michael keeps referring to the women swimmers as “girls” during his commentary and it’s been driving me nuts.

    • Jillian says:

      SAME!!! I only watched one segment where he was commentating women’s swimming and I wanted to scream every time. I hope someone on the network checked him for that crap, wildly inappropriate and patronizing. That said, I appreciate his words and support regarding mental health

      • Rose says:

        He’s addressing a huge issue here. The vocabulary police have a seat on this one. Spend all your energy squabbling over semantics and miss the points he’s making doesn’t help anyone.

      • Rose says:

        He’s addressing a huge issue here. The vocabulary police have a seat on this one. Spend all your energy squabbling over semantics and miss the points he’s making doesn’t help anyone.

    • Marie says:

      Biles calls her teammates girls as well. In the context of what’s happening here, Phelps doesn’t mean any harm. Here he is standing up for her and doubling down on raising awareness of the harm done to these athletes to appear perfect. Let’s choose our battles.

      • Jillian says:

        You also appear to have chosen to be patronizing! I’ll choose this battle as well, thanks: I’ve got the time and the brain power. Regardless of what Simone calls her teammates, calling adult women “girls” in a professional setting isn’t ok

      • letitbe says:

        The minimum age for gymnast to compete in the Olympics is turning 16 by the end of the Olympic calendar year, technically then some are 15. It’s possible Michael is calling them “girls” as he doesn’t know their age and, he’s uncomfortable referring to any teenage girl as a woman. Keep in mind he was speaking about it not as a gymnastic commentator, but because of his work and interviews on mental health. This is the first US Female gymnastic team in 30+ years where all the athletes are 18+ years old. I don’t think it was “unprofessional” for him to say “girls” as a good portion of the gymnast are, and it seems a bit creepy for a 30+ year old man to refer to them as women.

        Personally, I think they should go with male and female for all the sports, but I guess that brings up other gender issues for some. Finally, cause of history, I’m with Michael all the way on his wording. I doubt he said girls meaning this, but if he did, he has my utmost respect. The creepy international gymnastic organization- whatever name they were using (FIG, IGO, etc. ), forever encouraged directly or by tacitly ignoring the starving and abusing of young girls to create these gymnasts decided to change the name from girls to women gymnastics in order to not seem like they were abusing children, even though at the time they could compete at 14 and some of the Chinese team were accused of having gymnast as young as 10. It’s sick.

  14. LarkspurLM says:

    The HBO documentary about Olympic athletes and mental health is eye-opening, “Weight of Gold”

    Also, wasn’t that monster Nassar still on staff at the 2016 Olympics? Could this be triggering Biles? Nightmare – i hope she and the team get the help they need xo

  15. fluffy_bunny says:

    I lived in Baltimore during Phelp’s peak fame and his very, very messy time frame. I’m always amazed and proud at how far he has come and how open he has been about his struggles. Hopefully the stigma about mental health has lessened since his experience and Simone has an easier time seeking help and doesn’t go through the messy period he did.

    • Jenna says:

      After seeing the misogynistic, racist coverage of Naomi Osaka in recent weeks, I don’t have a lot of hope that Biles’ struggles will be treated with the respect they deserve.

  16. Jenna says:

    American parents, with their eager complicity in giving over their children to the fundamentally abusive process that IS elite athletic competition, are plenty culpable as well.

    When my kids were little, I looked into some local tumbling classes to socialize with some other kids and help them get the wiggles out. These are not tumbling classes. These are “Making The Next Olympic Gymnastics Star” classes. The laid-back and low-key need NOT apply.

    If they show even the slightest talent or natural promise, parents will build their entire families’ lives around the gym. They give their child’s body and mind to the cult of the “Coach” — a deeply feared individual who must never be questioned, yet whose approval means everything.

    Everything gymnastics IS basically groomed a nation of young girls to be Larry Nasser’s victims. And Nasser is by far not alone — he’s just the obvious rot they couldn’t continue to pretend they didn’t see.

    They can shuffle executives around (US Gymnastics is on their, what, third president?), issue woke press releases, and claim “awareness” and a newfound focus on the physical/mental health and wellbeing of the athletes all they want, but it won’t change the fact that the sport itself has always been, and probably always will be, problematic.

    • Ann says:

      And doing it professionally can have bad long-term effects on the body, right? Not just immediate risk of serious injury but lingering damage? I know that was true when I was younger anyway. I had a college classmate who had been a serious gymnast, and she had done something to her hip that had them worried she would not be able to walk by the time she was 30.

      My kids didn’t have the talent for it, but even if they had, I don’t think I would have wanted them to do it seriously, not past a certain age. We had a friend whose daughter was VERY good but she stopped in high school.

    • fluffy_bunny says:

      My niece is an elite gymnast and is in therapy over it but still chooses to compete. I don’t think her parents are pushing her to compete. My niece is very tiny and always has been but I think the training compounds it and she’s bullied because of her size. She’s had colleges expressing interest in her since 8th grade.

      • Jenna says:

        I’m not sure a child who’s been doing gymnastics over two-thirds of their time alive on this earth is really in a position to make a choice — not an informed one, anyway. It’s all they’ve ever known.

        I personally believe, after everything that has been exposed about the sport over the last decade, that NO child should be fed into the machinery it takes to produce an Olympics-caliber gymnastics “star.”

        Gymnastics has to break you to make you, and only the 1% of the 1% of the most talented ever make it at all. It is a hotbed of misogyny, elitism, racism, and abuse — physical, emotional, and sexual. It utterly and permanently ravages the body, and that’s if you’re doing it RIGHT.

        Sign the checks on time and every gym out there will promise you the Olympics, never mind that vanishingly few could ever come close to delivering on it. For many families, it’s little better than a scam. They’re lucky if they get a college scholarship out of it. Most don’t.

  17. Marie says:

    I’ve been saying since Simone decided not to continue that Phelps knows what it’s like – he went through the sh*t, too. I’m glad he’s there as a commentator. NBC needs to get rid of the two dipsh*ts making stupid commentary about Biles lately. And shame on NBC for running a montage on Biles’ recent technical mistakes right before she went on. She’s human. Humans make mistakes. You could tell that Nastia Liuken was ready to hit the two men over the head with her microphone.

    • Call_Me_Al says:

      Eff all the commentators except for Phelps, really. They ruin the Olympics for me every time. They just focus on the mistakes and the negative. It’s stressful to me and I’m not even an athlete!

  18. Isabella says:

    Tim Daggett is the worst. He repeats the same silly phrases over and over. They need another woman in his seat. Nastia has to defer to him and the other jerk. It gives her whiplash. The Canadian coverage was so much better. Two former gymnasts, a male and female. They were calm and logical about Simone, sensitive to her plight.