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Three-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion Tianna Bartoletta knows something about rising to the occasion on the world’s biggest stage. The two-time Olympic long jumper and sprinter also knows a lot about stepping up onto those podiums as a survivor, struggling through hardships the world knew nothing about. Suffice it to say, she has some perspective worth adding to the conversation around Simone Biles.
Biles, 24, shocked the world when she withdrew from the women’s team gymnastics final at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday. It was announced late Tuesday evening that Biles is also out for the women’s All-Around Final scheduled for Thursday. It has not been determined if she will compete in the individual event finals next week.
After the team competition—where Team USA won silver—Biles got emotional as she explained her decision. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” Biles told reporters.
It’s a sentiment Bartoletta, 35, understands all too well. After the 2017 world championships in London, where she won bronze, Bartoletta finally opened up about her story: In the three months leading up to the competition, she had run away from her home to escape an abusive marriage.
“I took a huge gamble blowing my life up in such an important year for me career-wise,” she previously told Women’s Running. “But it was about time for me to see that I was worth it. I was worth it.”
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Bartoletta, author of the newly released memoir Survive and Advance, has become an outspoken leader not only in track and field, but for all women and athletes and people, for making mental health a priority. She wrote her reflections and perspective as an elite athlete in the wake of Biles’s announcement and the swarm of social media commentary around it. Here is her essay in its entirety.
A Short Walk… A Long Game
I’m currently minding my business. Recharging my own batteries after a season of giving my all and it not ending the way I wanted it to and dealing with the aftermath of that. So I’m kinda offline.
I said all that to say, I’m not posting. But I am scrolling.
And I still read my messages. And I’ve gotten a lot of “What do you think about Simone?” And I’ve seen what Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram think about Simone, too.
This isn’t a post to try to convince you that she did or did not quit on her team. Those lines appear to be drawn. It’s honestly a waste of my time to even have such a debate which ultimately comes down to perspective and opinion.
But I do want to propose that you take two big ass steps to the the right, make a quarter turn, and then look at this entire situation from a different point of view.
Sure it was a short walk out of the arena, but it’s also a long game. Simone is 24. Some of us are up in arms now about her legacy being tarnished, forgetting that it’s simply tarnished to you. And sure, perhaps you’ve found others that agree with you…in which case it’s simply tarnished to y’all.
Your take on her legacy is not one she has to live with. Not one she goes home to. So she doesn’t have to behave in accordance with whatever parameters you have that would keep her legacy in tact in your view.
Only she actually knows where she is. And it’s pretty big of her, in my opinion, to decide, in what is widely consider the most important competition in the world of gymnastics, that she was worth more than the inevitable discussions about her character, her legacy, and her G.O.A.T status.
If we think that was an easy decision to make I’d ask how many Olympic teams you’ve made and returned to as the reigning Olympic champion—you know, just to make sure your take is credible and informed.
But what about the team? The other girls? She let them down didn’t she? They got silver because of her, right?
Or they got silver despite her absence—which is actually a testament to their ability because those girls are ALSO Olympians. They weren’t tumblers from off the street praying Simone could be perfect so they could ride her to a gold medal. How insulting to think of them in that way.
It’s possible that Simone, since they weren’t going to score her for what she was actually doing anyway, could bring the team down. Because if she’s not going to get the degree of difficulty her moves are actually worth, and then she scores super low on execution (and it was trending that way) it’s possible the alternate would have scored higher than her anyway. Let’s say Simone was aware of this, looked at her teammate, and trusted that on this day her teammate was the better gymnast. I don’t know; I like the rest of the world am just wondering.
But like I said, I’m not going to spend too much time on that. What I really want to point out is this.
There are people today who witnessed Simone walk away from this who are stuck knee deep in some shit right now. Trying to stick it out, or work through it because it’s what’s expected of them. And it’s f*cking killing them inside. They watched the greatest gymnast of all time walk off the biggest stage and I guarantee you that for the first time that same someone somewhere is thinking…
If she can walk away from that—with all that on the line for her, with the entire country and maybe even the world coming in hot with their hot takes—maybe, just maybe, I can take this step to walk, too. From whatever it is, and the world isn’t watching, and likely doesn’t even care.
There’s a lot of power in maybe. And hope is one helluva drug.
Last thing, there are coaches on Facebook going off about our “soft society” how we have made it acceptable to quit and how we expect free rides as soon as we cite “mental health.”
I want you to know this one thing: your athletes are watching.
And guess who they are now NOT going to talk to about their very real mental health issues should they arise?
This idea that athletes need to do absolutely whatever, however, whenever, “for the team” is one of the variables that make them vulnerable to abuses of all kinds. You can teach stepping up for the team in a way that also does not condone tolerating the intolerable.
And yes, I’ll say it—not giving a shit about your athlete’s mental health because you need them to play on the team IS ABUSE.
And yes, do we all need a crash course on what mental health is and isn’t? Yes.
Do we all need to incorporate mental conditioning into training and preparation? Absolutely.
Right now the internet is conflating mental health, with mental illness, with mental conditioning.
So I’ll try to explain it in more athletic terms: Mental Health is akin to general fitness, mental conditioning is like prehab, and mental illness is like an injury.
Some of us do a great job with our general fitness/mental health (like being great at practice)
But never address specific weaknesses with prehab/mental conditioning and so they struggle on game day.
Sometimes those struggles add up, flare up, and turn into or trigger a full blown injury/mental illness. Or maybe, honestly, you started with one and are trying to rehab (therapy) your way back.
My point is…when a competition is simply a single snapshot of all the pieces of a puzzle required for high performance it is damn near impossible for us on the outside to know which piece is missing.
There is one person that usually knows though. And it’s the person going through it.
And even if there are a few athletes that are willing to take advantage of the ability to cite “mental health” as a free pass to get out of doing something they simply don’t want to do—I look at it this way…
I’d rather have a few athletes use this excuse to get out of some sh*t than ONE athlete who is really struggling NOT get the support and help they need because “we” don’t believe them.
Look at the number of Olympians who have actually died by suicide, struggled with depression, look at them.
Their lives are worth more than the dog and pony show put on by the International Olympic Committee every four years. And I’m really f*cking proud that some of us are finally starting to see that.
My hope is that one day the rest of the world will, too.