Of all the past and present Olympians gathered in Tokyo for the Summer Games, few are in a better position than Michael Phelps to know what Simone Biles is going through.

Phelps, often hailed as the greatest of all time in swimming, just as Biles has been lauded in the gymnastics realm, said Tuesday night on NBC’s Olympic telecast that it “broke my heart” to see her bow out of the women’s team competition Tuesday.

However, Phelps also viewed it as the kind of “eye-opening experience” that could turn into a major positive by bringing greater awareness of mental health issues. That has been his focus – born of painful personal experience – since the 23-time Olympic gold medalist retired from competitive swimming after the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“We carry a lot of weight on our shoulders,” he said Wednesday, “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.”

He expanded on that later Wednesday, telling the “Today” show that his first reaction to the stunning news was to “make sure she’s OK. This is an opportunity for us – all of us – to learn more about mental health, to all help each other out. I want people to be able to have somebody to be able to support them, who is nonjudgmental and is willing to hold space [for them]. There’s a lot we can do to help one another and we can’t brush it under the rug.”

For Biles, the sport she chose presents actual danger if she loses focus, as she did Wednesday in midair. Real fear enters the equation in gymnastics and Phelps admitted, that “can be overwhelming especially during a competition.”

One thing that has changed for Phelps since his retirement is an improved focus on mental health issues and a lessened stigma on saying “I’m not OK.” Five years ago he “had no idea that mental health was going to be as big as it is now” and offered his experience as a template for Biles and other athletes nearing the end of their careers.

“The one thing I’ve learned is to keep a routine if it’s something you’ve had. For me, I had to be at the pool at this time to swim, then here, then there, then you’re sleeping, you’re eating, you’re doing that,” he said. “For me, it was hard to get a routine after I was done competing. Take care of yourself, but it’s difficult when you look at an Olympic Games and you build, build, build for four years. You get to the edge and you’re like, ‘What do I do? Who am I? What is my identity?’ That’s the biggest thing.

“If you can find out what you want to do next, chase it. We chase our goals and dreams better than anybody, right? That’s what our job is – try to win an Olympic gold medal. If our goals and dreams are something that excite us, then it should be easy to get back into that routine.”

Biles, who won four golds and a bronze in 2016 and was expected to submit another dominating performance in Tokyo, withdrew from the team event Tuesday after her first effort resulted in an unusually awkward vault. She briefly left the arena floor and then returned, wearing a sweatsuit over her leotard, to cheer on her United States teammates as they finished second in the event to athletes representing the Russian Olympic Committee.

“I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to,” Biles, 24, said afterward. “I don’t know if it’s age. I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics.”

Biles grew tearful as she went on to tell reporters: “I feel like I’m also not having as much fun, and I know that this Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself. I was still doing it for other people, so it hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”

“With the year that it’s been,” she added, “I’m really not surprised how it played out. . . . Therapy has helped a lot, as well as medicine. That’s all been going really well, but whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out.”

Biles noted the unusual circumstances in which the Olympics are being staged. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Japan has disallowed almost all attendance by fans and sharply limited the number of people each Olympic delegation can bring. That has meant, for Biles and others, eerily quiet settings for their athletic quests with few or no family members and trusted confidants to provide emotional support.

Biles’s year has also included continuing to deal with the fallout from the Larry Nassar scandal, of which she is a victim, and going into these Summer Games far more famous, and thus with far more scrutiny, than in 2016. She acknowledged Tuesday that the external pressure had taken a toll.

“At the end of the day, we’re human, too,” Biles said. “We have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

Phelps echoed those comments Wednesday, telling NBC host Mike Tirico: “We’re human beings. So, yes, it is OK to not be OK. It is OK to go through ups and downs, emotional roller coasters.”

The most decorated Olympian of all time, with a total of 28 medals, Phelps criticized the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in 2018 for not helping its athletes enough with mental health issues. Last year, he executive produced an HBO documentary called “The Weight of Gold” in which he and several other American Olympians discussed the psychological challenges they faced.

“This is war. . . . You need to show the world that you are strong,” former figure skater Sasha Cohen said in the documentary about the culture of reaching the Olympics. Admitting any issues with one’s mental health, she asserted, seemed “so fundamentally at odds with being a competitor.”

Phelps appeared to refer to the documentary Wednesday in telling Tirico how the right kind of support could be crucial to a competitor’s well-being.

“I think athletes, and Olympic athletes in general – I mean, talking about weight of gold – we need someone who we can trust,” Phelps said. “Somebody that can let us be ourselves and listen. Allow us to become vulnerable. Somebody’s who’s not going to try to fix us.”

“But I think the biggest thing,” he added moments later, “is we all need to ask for help sometimes, too, when we go through those times. For me, 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 your shoulders. So, yeah, it’s a tough situation.”

Tirico ended the interview by praising Phelps for efforts made by the ex-swimmer’s charitable foundation to help youngsters find “balance” in their lives.

Phelps emphasized that goal of promoting both physical and mental health and asked, “If we’re not taking care of both, how are we ever expecting to be 100 percent?”

Of the reaction to the stunning turn of events involving Biles, he said: “I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump on board and to blow this mental health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we could ever imagine.”


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