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Simone Biles stirred the internet into a frenzy over her decision to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics. Editorials criticized her. Texas’ deputy attorney general called her a “national embarrassment.” Others used it to level criticism against her generation, calling her a quitter and accusing her of not living up to her own hype, despite already being a 19-time world champion and a four-time Olympic gold medalist.
But not Black women. For Black women, who are often expected to remain likable and gracious in the face of adversity and neglect both in sports and society as a whole, Biles’ decision to put her own mental well-being over everyone else’s expectations struck a chord.
“We haven't really seen Black women take a stance like this, because we've had to prioritize everyone else but ourselves,” Ashley McGirt, a Black therapist who specializes in racial trauma, told VICE News.
Biles is the most decorated gymnast in history and carried the U.S. team to gold at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She’s served as a role model for women in her sport and has been lauded for her bravery in the face of adversity before: She is a survivor of abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics coach convicted of sexually assaulting more than 265 teenage girls in the sport for well over a decade.
While Biles declined to say exactly why she dropped out, the 24-year-old made it clear the decision was about putting herself first, even if that meant disappointing the people expecting her to land the U.S. a gold medal once again.
“This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself when I came in—and I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” Biles said at a press conference earlier this week. “At the end of the day, we’re human too, so we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
But something different happened: Black women, like sports trainers, mental health advocates, and celebrities, are posting tributes and memes celebrating Biles and her decision, explaining why it’s a welcome and refreshing change.
“A salute to Black girls and Black women who are choosing the wholeness of themselves over other people’s expectations of them,” actress Niecy Nash wrote on Instagram. “There is a cost when stepping into your greatness becomes heavy with the projections of other people and Black women have carried that weight for far too long at far too high a price.”
“Been thinking so much about Simone Biles over the last week,” Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, tweeted Thursday. “The pressure on women, ESPECIALLY Black women at the top of their games/professions to be perfect and ‘show up’ even when our bodies, minds, and spirits say no, is real.”
Yasmine Jameelah, a Black wellness expert and founder of Transparent & Black, told VICE News she’ll never forget the moment she heard the news, partly because of how it affected both herself and her mom.
“I remember walking into the living room and seeing my mom really, really happy that Simone decided to take care of herself,” Jameelah said. “I'm happy to see that we are living in a generation where Black women now have the freedom to say no and to firmly place boundaries that Black women decades ago didn’t have.”
This year’s Olympics has been anything but a beacon of inspiration for Black women thanks to controversial, and at times racist, decisions. Weeks before the games began, the International Swimming Federation banned a swim cap designed specifically for Black hair because it apparently didn’t “fit the natural form of the head.”
Then, Sha’Carri Richardson, the clear favorite to take gold in the 100-meter dash, was barred from this year’s games after she tested positive for cannabis, a substance most research suggests has no performance-enhancing properties for athletes and is only outlawed because of archaic rules set by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Even during the games, Black women like tennis star Naomi Osaka, an outspoken advocate for prioritizing mental wellness in her own right, has been on the receiving end of criticism concerning her identity as a half-Japanese, half-Haitian woman after she was chosen to light the Olympic torch.
“It’s a positive statement that gives Black women that are working in cubicles doing their 9 to 5, who are artists, who are married with children, room to say, ‘I'm tired today,’” Jameelah said. “That if Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka can say I'm tired, then I can say I'm tired too.”
Therapist and NFL clinician Tish Guerin said in an Instagram post that Biles and Osaka are showing that Black women will no longer let mental health take a backseat.
“It’s always better to take a step back than be placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold,” she wrote. “Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, we are with you. Today is a new day.”
That Black women should lead change at the Olympics shouldn’t surprise anyone. They started the Black Lives Matter movement and the modern-day push for change in policing. They helped kick off the civil rights movement of the ’60s and played a major part in the modern LGBTQ movement decades before the country began to address those issues.
The historical implications of Biles' decision is another reason why Black women are identifying with her, according to McGirt.
“Black women have always had to work. That is our history and our legacy in this country,” McGirt told VICE News. “I think that's why we as a people are really resonating because we haven't really seen Black women stance like this, because we've had to prioritize everyone else but ourselves.”
Biles’ backing out of the Olympics also struck a chord with the movement around mental health awareness, particularly as the stigma around self-care is becoming less common. For decades, intergenerational trauma has previously prevented most of the Black community from addressing mental health head-on. Only in recent years has this begun to change as more Black professionals are making their way into the mental health space, making it more accessible for people who look like them.
“Especially with athletes where you're the first person knocking down those barriers, you go in with this expectation and understanding that you are a representative for so many people, and that so many eyes are on you,” Jameelah continued. “And so being tired is unfortunately not an option. I'm thankful that we're now in a place where we understand that we can break down barriers and rest. That there is room for both.”
While Biles is probably the most well known athlete to back out of competition because of her mental health, she’s not alone: Australian WNBA player Liz Cambridge, pulled out of this year’s Olympics. Osaka made headlines in June when she dropped out of the French Open because of lingering anxiety.
The short career of gymnast Kerri Strug is a particular example that several media outlets and social media users have decided to reexamine in a new light. Strug competed with an injured ankle at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, GA, and while she helped the U.S. to gold, she further agitated the injury which abruptly ended her career earlier than expected.
“There's been other athletes before who didn't do what Simone has, and then it jeopardized their health, their careers, and they were never ever able to do gymnastics or sports ever again,” McGirt said.
Earlier this week, Strug was one of many athletes who shared their support for Biles.
Despite Biles’ early exit, the U.S. still went on to win gold in the women’s all-around competition thanks to a clutch performance by gymnast Sunisa Lee, the first Hmong American to win a gold medal. Biles stood by and encouraged her teammate the entire time.
While Biles has stepped back into a supporting role in Japan, Black women in the U.S. say Biles did something even more important for those who already looked up to her.
“In a society that already pays you less and that values you less, it gives you a sense of pride in who you are as a Black woman, knowing the strength that you have to not only persevere past your circumstances but also decide when enough is enough, and that you are worthy past your work ethic,” Jameelah said.