Teamwork makes the dream work — especially when one of your teammates is a six-time Olympic medalist. When that teammate walks away, you lose your dream to Russia. That’s exactly what happened when Simone Biles prioritized herself over the needs of her team on Tuesday, deserting them for the team final after she botched her vault.
“I’m sorry. I love you guys, but you’re going to be just fine,” Biles told the other girls. “You guys have trained your whole entire life for this, it’s fine. I’ve been to an Olympics, I’ll be fine.”
Biles was right that the other girls had invested a lifetime of blood, sweat, and tears, to prepare for this moment, but it wasn’t just to be present at the Olympics, something Biles implied. It was to win the gold.
“I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a backseat, work on my mindfulness, and I knew that the girls would do an absolutely great job and I didn’t want to risk the team a medal for kind of my screw-ups because they’ve worked way too hard for that,” Biles said during a presser. “So I just decided that those girls need to go in and do the rest of the competition.”
After word first broke that Biles would be pulling out of the contest with rumors of it being due to an injury, Biles corrected the record that, no, she’s fine — and in fact, her decision to step aside is actually because she’s a strong competitor and person who’s just prioritizing her so-called mental health. “It’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are.”
These public comments have been illuminating. Although plenty of bluechecks on Twitter have assured us of Biles’ “bravery” for walking away because of “mental health” or because of her skin color — Rep. Cori Bush went so far as to say the athlete was “reminding Black women that we can take the space we need for ourselves” — one of the forces at play is a misunderstanding of the mind.
As Federalist political editor John Daniel Davidson noted here on Tuesday, mental health and mental toughness are two different things, despite our societal propensity to conflate the two. “Public figures are often rewarded for taking care of their ‘mental health,’ even in the absence of any kind of mental illness,” Davidson said.
Another important force here, however, is a fundamental denial of what it means to be part of a team. In giving her reason for walking away, Biles admitted not only that she’s suffering from the not-so-clinical phenomenon of psyching herself out. She also admitted that the reason she was in her head was that she didn’t want to blow it for the other girls with her “screw-ups.” Anybody who’s ever faced any kind of team competition can understand the pressure of performing well, even when the stakes are exceptionally lower than the Olympic Games.
But Team USA is just that: It’s a team. Sure, solo athletes compete individually for certain titles, but the team final isn’t intended to be completed by just the 75 percent of teammates who are feeling up to the task. It’s a whole group effort. To join a team is to enter an agreement that, win or lose, you’ll be part of that effort.
After Tom Brady threw a devastating pick-six in Super Bowl LI, it was the entire Patriots’ team that trailed 25 points. And when Brady completed 43 passes and 466 passing yards, it was the whole Patriots’ team that took home the championship in overtime. When the drummer gets sick, the band is boring. When the ensemble is missing a dancer, the choreography doesn’t work.
“I’m SO proud of these girls right here,” Biles wrote in an Instagram caption next to a picture of herself with the other three gymnsts holding their silver medals. “You girls are incredibly brave & talented! I’ll forever be inspired by your determination to not give up and to fight through adversity! They stepped up when I couldn’t.”
Couldn’t? Or just didn’t?
Biles enthusiastically cheered on her teammates from the sidelines after she backed out, and of course, plenty of corporate media heads and other fans praised her for it. But Team USA wasn’t counting on her to be their cheerleader. They weren’t relying on her for supportive Instagram captions.
They were counting on her to do the job she came to do, but she didn’t. In the end, Simone Biles signaled to Team USA and to the watching world that the highly decorated Olympian, who still deserves praise for her remarkable achievements, doesn’t really understand what a team is.