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2021 Notebook: For athletes, mental health took center stage

THE BACKGROUND: It was the year that mental health took a prominent position in the sports world — led by two female athletes, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka

Biles, the American gymnastics superstar, earned her seventh Olympic medal and second in Tokyo with a third-place finish in the balance beam final on Aug. 3. That was a week after she took herself out of several competitions to deal with a dreaded mental block that gymnasts call “the twisties,” which prevents an athlete from performing high-level moves safely.

This was two months after Osaka pulled out of the French Open before the second round to take a mental health break after having announced she would not participate in news conferences in Paris. She also sat out Wimbledon before participating in the Tokyo Olympics, where she lit the cauldron as one of Japan’s most famous athletes.

Together, their sagas led the way to a new, more in-depth conversation about emotional health and athletes.

Here, some Associated Press journalists involved in the coverage reflect on the story and their own experiences.

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ASHLEY LANDIS, AP photographer who covered Biles at the Tokyo Olympics:

I think all of us who were covering it, we didn’t didn’t really know what was going on. Right? So you’re watching the sport event unfold in front of you with one of the most famous athletes in the world. And you see her fall. And I think everyone just kind of assumed that she had an ankle injury or that she had a leg injury or some kind of physical injury. And so of course, you go into your automatic mode, where you have a very famous injured athlete.

There are two things that actually struck me about that day. One is that her mental health issues were treated very much like a physical injury. So much so in that they they took her back into the back where they examined her with a doctor and took her into the injury room. … There’s a photo that I took that’s my favorite photo from that day where the rings are above her and she has her hand over her mouth and you could just tell on her face that she was like, “Oh no.” This was a really hard moment for her. But the way that she then supported her team and came back and cheered everyone on, she huddled everyone together and told them okay, I’m out. You guys have to take it from here. And the way that she became a cheerleader and a coach after that, so much so that she was walking around carrying the chalk then, for everybody, and you know, offering them chalk and carrying their stuff. And you know, she just became this — instead of the superstar athlete that she was, she became this assistant coach.

I think it took someone like her to do what she did to kind of put a spotlight on it, right? Because I think, you know, professional athletes and even high-level amateur athletes, student athletes, anyone who’s under a spotlight, there’s a lot of pressure. … And so I think it takes someone at the highest level like her to put a spotlight on that. I don’t think it’ll ever be the same. I don’t think athletes’ mental health will ever be treated the same.

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JENNA FRYER, AP sports writer:

Interestingly, I think that Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka made it okay for big top male athletes to feel comfortable saying that they, too, struggle with their own mental health. That’s been a huge takeaway for me. We’ve seen a lot of it through the NFL, the last few months and I really think the dam sort of broke. I know that Michael Phelps had been open about it for year. But really, when Osaka and Biles made their stances so publicly in in Tokyo, that it’s just this ripple effect across all forms of athletics. And, you know, when you see top NFL guys who play through anything saying, `Hey, I need to step back from the team and focus on me,” I think it all goes back to sort of the summer and these two female athletes, saying “No, it’s okay. It’s okay to say I need to pay attention to my own personal issues.”

It’s no longer a stigma. I also think that the fear of “Will I lose my job if I do this?” has been diminished a little bit because teams and organizations and leagues will really look like bad people and out of touch … if they say, “Oh, you can’t play Sunday, you’re fired. You know, we have to cut you because, you know, you might have a mental breakdown if you play and you feel like you need to step away but we can’t afford that.” The stigma is gone.

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WILL GRAVES, AP sports writer who covers gymnastics as a beat:

I’m sure it’ll be parsed through the rest of her life about exactly what happened and what led to the “twisties” and whatever. But I think it should give people pause to realize that this happens a lot in general with sports. We treat these athletes, especially Olympians as avatars, right? Avatars for what we are, what we want to represent how we want to know if our if our kid’s the best. Simone basically said, “Hey, I’m a full fledged, three dimensional person.” And, you know, I think recognizing that in the moment is something we’re going to be talking about for a long time, whether that’s going to be a big-picture trend or not. I do think that what she did has helped make it safer for athletes to talk about their mental health struggles. … Not a headline you would have seen in 2016 or 2015. I think that’s a uniquely 2021 headline.

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For a full overview of the events that shaped 2021, “A Year That Changed Us: 12 Months in 150 Photos,” a collection of AP photos and journalists’ recollections, is available now: https://www.ap.org/books/a-year-that-changed-us



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