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Simone Biles can add another impressive accolade to her trophy room: she’s just been named Time’s 2021 Athlete of the Year.
This honor may have actually come as a shock because Biles, who already has four Olympic gold medals — among seven total medals — and four gymnastics skills named after her, made global news during the Tokyo Olympics this summer when she pulled out during the event after struggling with a mental issue referred to by gymnasts as “the twisties.”
Biles later explained that the pandemic and the pressure to perform put too much strain on her mental health, and that “[her] mind was racing and [she] wasn’t going to sleep as easily” and that too much time alone due to early pandemic protocols increased her anxiety and self-doubt. She added, “things you normally don’t think about because you don’t have time, now you have hours on end to think about — those doubts, those worries and those problems.”
Not only did Biles have to cope with the stress of being the top American gymnast performing at the Olympic games during a global pandemic (as well as the death of her aunt, which happened during the games), but she also was facing her own personal trauma after being sexually abused by the former team doctor for the U.S. Women’s National Gymnastics Team, Larry Nassar.
Along with Biles, Nassar sexually assaulted McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols, along with over 150 other girls and women during his time with USA Gymnastics. Despite ongoing complaints raised about his behavior, Nassar wasn’t terminated and continued abusing female athletes for years.
In September, Biles and other former Team USA gymnasts testified before Congress about how the FBI failed to protect them during the Nassar investigation. Despite knowing about the allegations against Nassar, the FBI is accused of not acting swiftly enough to protect these girls and put Nassar behind bars. Later, the agency would admit that its employees’ lack of action was “inexcusable and a discredit to this organization.”
Although Nassar is now serving up to 175 years in prison for his crimes, it took a lot of work on behalf of the victims to help get him locked up.
“I definitely do think it had an effect,” Biles later said of that particular burden during the 2020 Olympics (which happened in 2021, due to the pandemic). “It’s a lot to put on one person. I feel like the guilt should be on them and should not be held over us. They should be feeling this [pain], not me.”
While many applauded her choice to put athletics on hold to focus on her wellbeing, it was not without controversy. Her decision to do so got her branded a “quitter” by pundits like Piers Morgan.
On the other side, Allyson Felix — herself the most decorated woman in Olympic track and field history — spoke to Time about how powerful it was for Biles to resign from the 2021 Olympics.
“To see her choose herself, we’re going to see the effects of that for the next generation,” Felix said in the article revealing Biles’ selection.
In the same piece, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick also sung the praises of the gymnastics icon.
“Her influence extends far beyond the realm of sports and shows us that another world — a better world — is possible when we speak our truths with integrity and authenticity,” the former football star said.
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