NBC made audiences wait 14 hours to hear 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps speak on Simone Biles after she dropped out of the women’s gymnastics team all-around competition Tuesday, citing her mental health.
Phelps didn’t disappoint. He used the stage and platform to give an impassioned defense not only of Biles’ decision to drop out, but also of athletes’ mental health in general. Phelps, speaking with Mike Tirico during NBC’s prime-time program, opened up about his own mental health struggles — something he has done before — and put in perspective what Biles and other Olympic athletes may be feeling at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
“The Olympics are overwhelming. There’s a lot of emotions that go into it,” Phelps told Tirico. “There’s a lot of … I mean, I can talk to you about this for an hour.
“I think athletes and Olympic athletes in general, I mean, talking about weight of gold. 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. You know, 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 that are being thrown on top of us. So it broke my heart.”
Biles, the greatest gymnast in history, had incredible expectations heaped upon her on her way to the 2021 Olympics. She was coming off the 2016 Rio Games, in which she scored five medals and earned gold in every event except the balance beam (where she earned bronze). She also won gold in the team, all-around, vault, balance beam and floor exercise at the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany.
But Biles had what many would consider a subpar performance in qualifying Sunday, and that left United States second heading into the team final Tuesday. It was clear it weighed on her the day before competition, as she posted on Instagram.
“It wasn’t an easy day or my best but I got through it,” Biles said. “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!”
That is something Phelps knows well, as he put it so eloquently to Tirico:
“We’re humans. Right? We’re human beings. Nobody is perfect. So, yes, it is OK to not be OK. It is OK to go through ups and downs and emotional roller coasters, you know. But I think the biggest thing is, we all need to ask for help sometimes too when we go through those times. You know, for me, I can personally, it was something that was 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 your shoulders. So, yeah, it’s a tough situation.”
Phelps also expressed hope that Biles’ decision — and those made by other athletes, such as Naomi Osaka — will place a greater emphasis on mental health.
“I hope this is an eye-opening experience. I really do. I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open,” he said.
“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’s 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, how are we ever expecting to be 100 percent?”