Michael Phelps Understands ‘Weight of the World’ Like Simone Biles, Says Her Withdrawing ‘Broke My Heart’

Michael Phelps -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Michael Phelps Empathizes With Simone Biles, Says Her Withdrawing “Broke My Heart”

It was a stunning sight Tuesday evening at the Olympic Gymnastics Centre. Simone Biles, widely considered and hyped as the greatest gymnast in history, could not complete her planned vault during the women’s team competition. After not completing the anticipated number of rotations, she decided that she was done. She told her teammates she did not think she could continue that day. Her teammates, Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum, would finish out the competition and clinch the silver medal for the U.S., but the world wondered: what happened to Biles?

The weight of the Olympics happened. The overwhelming pressure she felt to live up her sterling résumé, including five medals, four of them gold, from Rio five years ago, and to push the boundaries of the sport while potentially chasing six gold medals in Tokyo. Biles said she was not mentally ready to compete, and she believed that continuing to try to perform would hurt her American team much more than she could help. It was almost a case of the yips, a mental block preventing her from performing what she was physically capable of doing, one induced by a debilitating weight of expectations and past performance.

And no one knows that weight better than the most decorated Olympian of all-time, Michael Phelps. Since he retired, Phelps has admitted that he battled depression throughout his career, and he has become an advocate for mental health awareness in sports and in life, along with longtime training partner and fellow Olympian Allison Schmitt. Phelps has embraced the mantra, “It’s OK not to be OK.”

Appearing on NBC’s primetime Olympic broadcast with host Mike Tirico, Phelps deeply empathized with Biles. “The Olympics is overwhelming. There’s a lot of emotions that go into it. I could talk to you about this for an hour,” he said.

Maybe that’s because most Olympic sports fly under the radar for three years and 11 months at a time, only to be thrust into the national limelight, expected to perform and rack up medals on behalf of their country. The stress is even further amped up this year as the world has gone through the COVID-19 pandemic, when the complete upheaval of life as we know it sent so many around the world – elite athletes and regular people alike – into a spiral of anxiety.

The weight of a normal Olympics, plus the pandemic, plus the Olympics being delayed an entire year? No one can be expected to escape that unscathed.

Plenty of other Olympic athletes have admitted to the weight and stress impacting them. In June, tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open because of anxieties she was dealing with, and she also skipped Wimbledon. Now, another global sports star, Biles, was physically not be able to go on in a competition in a high-profile moment.

Phelps proposed that Olympic athletes “need somebody we can trust, somebody that can let us be ourselves and listen, allow us to be vulnerable,” he said. “Somebody who’s not going to try and fix us. 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.”

Asking for help, Phelps emphasized, is critical, but he acknowledged that it takes courage for someone to admit when they need someone to talk to.

“We’re humans. We’re human beings,” Phelps said. “Nobody is perfect. It is OK to not be OK. It’s OK to go through ups and downs and emotional roller coasters. I think the biggest thing is, we all need to ask for help when we go through those times. For me, 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 my shoulders.”

Phelps said that seeing Biles have to withdraw “broke my heart,” but he also was heartened that she had the courage to do so, to admit that she could not continue. He attributed that to mental health and its critical importance entering the national conversation over the past 18 months, particularly since the pandemic began. And most of all, he hopes that Biles’ public experience will be a reminder for the world that still more needs to change to truly support elite athletes and their mental health.

“I hope this is an eye-opening experience for us. 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. It is so much bigger than we could ever imagine,” Phelps said.

“When I started on this journey five years ago, I knew it was going to be big. I knew it was going to be challenging. Five years into it now, it’s even bigger than I can comprehend. This is something that’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of work and people who are willing to help.”