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Lost in Space: Mental Health and Self Care

Simone Biles was lost in space. The United States’ premier Olympic gymnast lost the sense of where she was in the midst of a vault maneuver at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Gymnasts refer to the experience as the “twisties.” To say that the twisties are disorienting –a mix up—is a gross underestimation of the experience and its dangers. The spatial connections upon which we rely for communication between our minds and our bodies tells only part of the story for Biles and for ourselves outside the theaters of athletic competition and with other kinds of performances when, suddenly, we find ourselves lost in what is ordinarily familiar. This loss –of space relations, of directions, of thought—can alarm even the most robust. Here, Biles instructs us on some of the conditions that complicate our self-communication, during our routines and internal dialogues about which only a few of our companions have knowledge: the positive and negative voices affecting our mental health.

As if the twisties are not enough to set the most adept gymnasts into unrecognizable space, the experience can be exacerbated to the point of personal danger, complicated especially by the distractions of competition and the adulation of the crowds for the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) to nail it. On her Instagram account, Biles confirmed the pressure she was experiencing before her decision to withdraw from the USA Team gymnastics competition final, revealing afterwards that “I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”[1] As The New Yorker notes, “The endless praise that Biles receives for her superhuman abilities can lead to a kind of dehumanization, enforcing an incessant expectation that she not only perform but outperform.”[2] The combination of the twisties and others’ expectations caught up with the stalwart Biles, who wisely protected herself from potential physical and an increased risk of personal-mental-spiritual kinds of injury. The New York Times connected the expectations of a stoic steadfastness for elite athletes with Biles’ “courage to acknowledge her vulnerability.”[3] And Vogue, a step further, admitted that as coaches, teammates, and spectators “expect perfection from our Olympians … there has to be space for them to take care of their bodies but also their minds.”[4]

The figurative weight of the world is too much for any one person to bear, and Biles is no exception. Imagine the emotional, mental, and physical stamina required for her gravity-defying feats. Then consider the challenges of being a young Black woman on a world stage, of being a survivor of sexual abuse, and of becoming ever more aware that she herself is not compelled to perform. In the past, gymnasts and other athletes would continue their routines despite injury; today some of those expectations have changed.[5] Biles and her teammates train for many years (Biles started gymnastics when she was just 6 years old), each with hopes to showcase their talent on the Olympic world stage. Even before the Team USA vault rotation and not solely on account of the twisties, Biles had reached her physical and mental health limits with the combination of a year delay for the games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, irregular practice opportunities, and near empty venues (the athletes are energized by the crowds). Many commentators consider her decision wise and, although the term is not cited in the media, self-care is visibly at work in her as she protects herself from the demons disturbing her peace of mind: her own expectations, and the ethos instilled by coaches, sponsors, and sports fans of the “win-at-all-cost” culture.

Add to these realities at this time of increased consciousness of the incessant vulnerability of Black and Indigenous people, along with the physical challenges of gymnastics, Biles’ mental health was reaching break point (the OED defines as “1.a. The place or time at which an interruption or change is made”). Only the most hard-hearted would fail to take note of, after the interruption and embodied loss in space, the well-reasoned decision to withdraw from competition as self-defense against the demons of the GOAT and for her own self-care. At these Olympic Games, Biles not only entered into, she embraced the chaos that surrounds and imbues her “own distinctively complicated life.”[6]

Mental health and spiritual integrity belong as much to the work of self-care as does physical health and bodily integrity. As some naysayers ignore, attention to mental health is not a failure of resilience in matters of production; rather, this attention points to the recognition that we human beings are more than flesh and bone. We are embodied spirits and inspirited bodies that together account for who we are as persons in touch with ourselves and our companions on the journey.[7] Similarly, attention to physical health points to the balance –on the beam, with our diet, in our work, worship, and leisure—necessary for tomorrow. It’s time to end the long chapter of a mind/body dualism: “sometimes you can do everything ‘right,’ and still your body doesn’t cooperate with your/society’s plans [or expectations] for how it’s supposed to look, feel, or function.”[8] If nothing else, acknowledging such an experience confirms the virtue of self-care (in the traditional vocabulary, courage and fortitude) inviting the moral agent to acknowledge and even embrace the vulnerability of being human. As more celebrities in sports, entertainment, and (even) academia admit that their lives are complicated with mental health concerns, the more the stigma and shame associated with its disruptions will be ameliorated.[9] The takeaway for this moment is to recognize mental, physical, and spiritual health as the trinity of well-being yearning for the moral agent to be free.

Not lost in space, no longer in danger of injury, not beholden to others’ expectations, Simone Biles reached deep within herself to find a resolve to not compete –and with that resolve she has won.

[1] Charli Penn, “Simone Biles is Feeling ‘the Weight of the World’ on Her Shoulders at the Olympics,” Essence (July 26, 2021),

[2] Eren Orbey, “The Radical Courage of Simone Biles’ Exit from the Team USA Olympic Finals,” The New Yorker (July 27, 2021),

[3] Jere Longman, “Simon Biles Rejects a Long Tradition of Stoicism in Sports,” The New York Times (July 28, 2021),

[4] Michelle Ruiz, “Simone Biles Doesn’t Have to Be Superhuman,” Vogue (July 27, 2021),

[5] See Madison Feller, “As an Olympic Gymnast, Dominique Moceanu Wasn’t Allowed a Voice. Now She’s Using Hers to Support Simone Biles,” Elle (August 2, 2021),

[6] James F. Keenan, Moral Wisdom, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 117.

[7] See Margaret Farley, Just Love (New York: Continuum, 2006), “How the Body Matters,” 110-132.

[8] Michelle Lelwica, Shameful Bodies (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 33.

[9] Kara Gavin, “A Game-changer for Mental Health: Sports Icons Open Up,” Brain Health (University of Michigan: Michigan Health, July 29, 2021),