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Simone Biles

I’ve done gymnastics on broken ribs, shattered toes, kidney stones and experienced sexual abuse

Biles has 37 major medals to her name photo: courtesy of Simone Biles
Self-belief and taking a break are key, said Biles photo: Global Wellness Summit 2023
The gymnast keynoted at GWS, just a month after claiming two golds at the World Championships photo: Anders Riishede
Biles received a summit award for her work in mental health photo: Global wellness summit 2023

The world’s most decorated gymnast Simone Biles headlined the 17th Global Wellness Summit in Miami this November (see p88) with a keynote on mental health and resilience – an area that’s gathering great momentum in spa circles.

Biles – who has 37 Olympic and World Championship medals under her belt – took to the stage to share how she’s championing mental wellbeing.

Prioritising self-belief
With more and more operators offering mental health programmes, adding a focus on self-belief could be key according to Biles, who competed in her first Olympic games aged just 16.

“When I was growing up and realised I had a gift for gymnastics, I was afraid of being great and would self-sabotage,” she said, adding that it was only after seeking the help of a sports psychologist and learning to believe in herself that she began competing to the best of her ability.

“I know now that you can’t be afraid of being great or to unleash that power in your mind because you can open yourself up to so many things.

“Obviously it was very hard being on a world stage at such a young age and having so many people judge me – and now you’ve also got everyone online trying to get their 2 cents in too. So I try not to think about it. I’ve become a lot better at blocking out that noise.”

Pausing for thought
Talking about the importance of prioritising mental wellness and taking a break, also resonated with delegates.

Although she’s only 26, Biles has already overcome major challenges in her career. In 2016, news broke that she was a survivor of the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal and in 2021 she withdrew from the final of the Tokyo Olympics after suffering from a case of the twisties.

“People were saying: ‘she just quit’. That’s not it. I’ve done gymnastics on broken ribs, shattered toes, kidney stones, experienced sexual abuse – and I still came back to the sport,” she said.

“The twisties are where your mind and body aren’t syncing up and you lose all air and spatial awareness.

“It’s very scary and dangerous for gymnasts and can’t be fixed overnight. It can take weeks and months.”

Biles says the difficulty with the twisties is that it’s an invisible mental ailment which meant people were unsympathetic because they couldn’t see a physical problem. “I know a lot of people looked down upon it, but I was at my breaking point. I’m very happy that my mind and my body – although they were having that disconnect – knew I needed to stop and sit down.”

Okay not to be okay
Biles ended her fascinating talk by paying tribute to pro basketball player Kevin Love and tennis star Naomi Osaka for their hard work in opening up a dialogue about mental wellbeing in sport. “After Tokyo, I was able to join that conversation and help and teach people that it’s okay not to be okay,” she said.

In amongst her busy gymnast schedule – involving 6 to 7 hours of training every day – Biles makes her mental health a priority and attends weekly therapy sessions as well as taking medication for her anxiety. “Everyone deserves proper help, seeking it out shows how strong you are.”

The summit concluded Biles’ time at the event by honouring her with its annual Debra Simon Award. The accolade is given to an individual who has achieved excellence in the field of mental health and wellness and has been a leader, advocate or innovator in wellness programmes or pathways that help people thrive mentally.

Originally published in Spa Business 2023 issue 4
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