For Simone Biles, the Mental Health Journey Is Never Over: 'But I Know Who I Am Now'

The seven-time Olympic medalist is one of PEOPLE's 2021 People of the Year

As 2021 comes to an end, Simone Biles isn't dwelling on the year that could have been: "I fought hard. I survived."

The superstar Olympic gymnast — who has won an impressive seven medals throughout her storied career — is one of PEOPLE's 2021 People of the Year alongside Dolly Parton, Sandra Oh, and America's teachers.

Biles became a champion for mental health as she grappled with the intense pressure of competing on the Olympic stage this past summer in Tokyo. During the Games, Biles removed herself from four out of five event finals due to a case of the "twisties," a disorienting condition gymnasts can experience when they lose air awareness, ultimately putting them at risk for injury when they land. She explained at the time that she withdrew from the competition to focus on her mental wellness, saying on social media that her "mind & body are simply not in sync."

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Her candor has earned her praise from athletes across the sports world, like Michael Phelps.

"That's probably one of the first times in my career where I felt courageous and I felt like I had got to speak up for myself," she tells PEOPLE. Adds Biles, 24, "[I] definitely can walk away from Tokyo, feeling courage, feeling at ease. And I did everything I could."

Simone Biles
Phylicia J.L. Munn

Obviously, to "train for five years and then get out there and have something like that happen" wasn't easy. Accepting that, since, has "been a rollercoaster of emotions."

Biles didn't leave the Games empty-handed though: she won a silver in the team event and took bronze in her triumphant return to the balance beam individual final.

RELATED PHOTOS: 'I Don't Have to Be Fine': Everything Simone Biles Has Said About Mental Health

"Whenever I got home, I was really sad about it. But then on the flipside, I was like, 'You know how many people I helped by speaking out and teaching them that they need to speak up for themselves?' And just kind of going through that road together, and putting mental health at the forefront. So I knew that it was right," Biles says. "And obviously, I'm still going to be sad because it didn't go the way I wanted. But with the cards that I was dealt, it went better than expected."

Watch the full episode of People of the Year: Simone Biles on or on the PeopleTV app.

And prioritizing herself didn't go unnoticed. As Biles spent the past few months performing in her Gold Across America gymnastics tour, fan interactions had changed. Biles says she used to get compliments on her Olympic medals, but now, it's "thank you"s for elevating the mental wellness conversation.

"It really showed me a different side of myself and how people see me, not just an athlete but as a human, and that was really different for me."

People of the Year Simone Biles

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This entire year, and her experiences in Japan, have been humbling, Biles says. "Now, internally, I know who I am and what I want to do."

As Biles approaches the next phase of her life, she says she's okay with being "lost right now."

"I do have things that I'm really interested in with working foster care kids and the foster care community. That's very heartfelt to me and the journey's not over for me yet."

Read more from our People of the Year in the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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