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Simone Biles is a role model for prioritizing her own mental health over an Olympic medal

Athletes rely on their families for support in stressful situations. But the Olympic stands are empty for COVID, removing a source of reassurance.

U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, adorned with bedazzled goats on her leotards, strut into competition with the pressure of living up to the GOAT acronym: the greatest of all time.

Biles proved to be just that when she decided to withdraw from the team competition Tuesday.

The most decorated gymnast in World Championships history, Biles is a hero and role model – not because she pushed through her pain for another medal but because she quit to take care of herself.

“I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” Biles said. “That’s why I decided to take a step back.”

Part of being great is recognizing when you can’t be great. Biles has shown the world what true strength looks like.

Mental, physical health linked

She’s helping young people realize that it’s OK to take care of themselves. She’s teaching them to prioritize their bodies because mental health and physical health are inextricably linked.

Biles has been open about her depression after being sexually abused by team doctor Larry Nassar. She has overcome so much in her young life. Yet those now criticizing her actions exemplify the harsh reality of how stigmatizing issues of mental health are, particularly in the world of athletics.

I applaud Biles and Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from both the French Open and Wimbledon, for prioritizing their mental health over others’ physical expectations of them. These athletes aren’t superhuman; they’re human. We can sit on our couches, snacking on potato chips, judging and demanding to be entertained. But the vast majority of us have never excelled to the level of an elite athlete.

While we can accept a tweaked ankle or hamstring injury, we refuse to acknowledge how difficult it can be to focus mentally and emotionally and still compete at the highest level. And often these athletes rely upon their families and friends to keep them grounded. But the stands are empty this year. They can’t look into the audience for support. They can’t see a parent’s proud face sending a message that everything will be OK.

“I’m kind of nervous I might freak out over that,” Biles has said of missing her parents. “I don’t feel set and comfortable until I find where they are in the crowd.”

Biles was honest about the stress she was feeling at Summer Games. After the preliminary rounds, she shared some thoughts on Instagram offering clues that she was struggling.

“It wasn’t an easy day or my best but I got through it,” she wrote. “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The Olympics is no joke!”

Nothing is funny about pressure

She’s right. Nothing is funny about the immense pressure she must have felt to be perfect. Imagine how difficult it was to make the decision to step aside with the world – literally – watching. She deserves credit for showcasing such courage.

Athletes are finally starting to put their own well-being before sport. Biles is helping usher in a culture where they don’t have to sacrifice their health for medals, championship trophies and our entertainment.

Biles remains the GOAT of U.S. women’s gymnastics. She remains an inspiration for all the young girls watching and dreaming of becoming an elite athlete. She’s setting an example of self-love and preservation for them – and it’s one that should not be ignored.

National columnist Suzette Hackney is a member of USA TODAY’S Editorial Board. Contact her at shackney@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @suzyscribe

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