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Simone Biles Has Withdrawn From Gymnastics Team Finals For Mental Health Reasons


Gymnastics fans woke up to stunning news today. Last night, American Simone Biles pulled out of the women's gymnastics team finals competition for mental health reasons. NPR's Tom Goldman was at the event in Tokyo and joins us now.

Hi, Tom.


SHAPIRO: So tell us what you saw.

GOLDMAN: You know, the night started with great anticipation after a rocky performance in the preliminaries, the women's team event a couple of days before. The expectation was Simone Biles - the greatest of all time, the winner of five Olympic medals, including four gold - that she would perform as she always does and lift the U.S. to victory over the Russian team. Now, she started on the vault, which is one of her best events, and it was wobbly. Suddenly, she left the floor. We were looking around - where did she go? She came back with her warm-ups on, and we were wondering, well, is she hurt? She didn't appear to be. She was standing with her team, cheering them on throughout the competition. When she and her teammates showed up for the press conference after, we were prepared for an injury update. We weren't prepared for what she said. There was no physical injury but a ton of stress. She had told her coaches she needed to withdraw. And here she is.


SIMONE BILES: We had a workout this morning. It went OK. And then just that five-and-a-half-hour wait or something, I was just, like, shaking, could barely nap. I've just never felt like this going into a competition before. And I tried to go out here and have fun, and warm-up in the back went a little bit better, but then once I came out here, I was like, no, mental is not there, so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.

GOLDMAN: Biles essentially sent a warning after the preliminary round of the team event that something was up. She had some uncharacteristic bobbles in the prelims, and she wrote on social media, I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.

SHAPIRO: You've covered a lot of Olympic Games. Have you ever seen anything like this?

GOLDMAN: I have not. And I think what startled people was how Biles took this proactive step. In a sense, she owned the pressure. Most athletes in most sports can have a bad day and say, well, I'll get it next time. Over 70% of Olympians compete in one Olympics, so they don't get a next time. They train for years for a moment, and we see the pressure manifest in bad performances. I remember the 2018 Winter Olympics. I watched a painful melt down by a Canadian figure skater who sobbed uncontrollably after her blown performance. What Biles did last night is anticipate that kind of brutal moment might be coming, and she withdrew. Now, some say she was being selfish. She said repeatedly she did it for her teammates, so they could have a chance to medal - and they did, by the way. They won silver. Russians took gold.

SHAPIRO: How did her teammates respond?

GOLDMAN: You know, they were totally supportive. The coaches were supportive. U.S. Olympic officials were supportive. It's a new kind of reality with mental health and athletes. You know, we saw recently the support tennis player Naomi Osaka got after she withdrew from two Grand Slam tournaments recently, citing depression and anxiety as the reason. Michael Phelps - the greatest medal winner in Olympic history - he's been very candid in recent years about his mental health struggles. Some won't like what Simone Biles did and chastise her for being a quitter, but there's a ton of support for her to counter that.

SHAPIRO: She's scheduled to compete in several more events. Do you think we're going to see her?

GOLDMAN: To be determined. She said last night she'll take it day at a time and, quote, "Hopefully I'll get back out there and compete."

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tom Goldman in Tokyo.

Thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANIA RANI'S "GLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.