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Simone Biles' Olympic Experience Highlights The Issue Of Mental Health

NOEL KING, HOST:

Simone Biles has withdrawn from the individual all-around final at the Tokyo Olympics. That's when the gymnasts compete in four events on behalf of themselves rather than the team. After she pulled out of the team competition yesterday, Biles told reporters what happened.

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SIMONE BILES: It's been really stressful, this Olympic Games, I think, just as a whole - not having an audience. There are a lot of different variables going into it. It's been a long week. It's been a long Olympic process. It's been a long year. So just a lot of different variables. And I think we're just a little bit too stressed out.

KING: NPR's Mandalit del Barco has been following this story from Tokyo. Hi, Mandalit.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Hello.

KING: What happens now to the U.S. team with Simone Biles out? And what is still to be determined at the Olympics for her?

DEL BARCO: Well, USA Gymnastics says it will continue to evaluate Simone Biles every day. She's qualified. And she could compete in next week's individual finals, where they compete for medals in the vault and uneven bars, for example. But for now, her teammate, Jade Carey, will take her place in the all-around final. That's the big event. But, you know, Biles is not the only one talking about the stresses of performing at the Olympics. Today, swimmer Katie Ledecky won gold in the swimming event. The six-time Olympic champion broke down in tears. And she told reporters that while she was competing, she choked up with every stroke, thinking about her grandparents. Ledecky said she understands some of what Simone Biles is going through.

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KATIE LEDECKY: Certainly, Simone has so many eyes on her. And, you know, the cameras follow you around. I experience it. And, you know, yeah, you can feel like every move you make is being watched and judged.

DEL BARCO: And, you know, of course, all eyes have also been on Japanese tennis champ Naomi Osaka. And she withdrew from two Grand Slam tournaments, citing depression and anxiety. She had the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony. But she lost in the third round.

KING: OK. So you have all of these very talented, disciplined athletes saying they are stressed out. And in some cases, it's just breaking them. Do the organizers of the Olympics offer them any help?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, even before this week, the organizers of the games brought in mental health officers for the athletes and the coaches. There's now a 24/7 helpline for them. And at the Olympic Village where the athletes are staying, there are psychiatrists and psychologists. Team USA also has its own mental health specialist. I talked to Jess Bartley, the director of mental health services for Team USA.

JESS BARTLEY: You know, it's been really stressful with COVID and the protocols. We have a number of athletes who have been caught up either with COVID or contact tracing. I think just the protocols in general can be kind of isolating. It's a very different experience at the games. But also, you know, you didn't compete as expected. Something's coming up at home, and you're trying to balance performance as well as just life.

DEL BARCO: You know, Bartley says that Team USA has a website filled with resources, an anonymous mental health support line and a 50-page manual for dealing with crises like panic attacks during the games. They're also prepping athletes for post-Olympic blues and the challenges afterwards.

KING: You know, a lot changes in three years since the last Olympics. How do you think this particular time is exacerbating the stress?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, besides the pressure to be the best and besides the global pandemic, there's also the fact that there are no spectators allowed to watch the games in person. There aren't any family members to hug after they win. There are no friends or family or fans to cheer them on from the stands. Fans from around the world have been recording videos and TikTok, Instagram messages to the athletes. But it's really not the same as having those cheering fans here at the Olympics.

KING: Yeah, that makes sense. NPR's Mandalit del Barco in Tokyo. Thank you.

DEL BARCO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.