Michael Phelps Supports Simone Biles amid Mental Health Struggles: 'The Olympics Is Overwhelming'
Regarded widely as the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles shocked the world after unexpectedly bowing out of the women's gymnastics team final on Tuesday night at the Tokyo Olympics due to mental health struggles. And Michael Phelps — the most decorated Olympian of all time — is sharing his support for the 24-year-old.
During the women's gymnastics team final, Biles exited her first event following a botched vault routine. USA Gymnastics told PEOPLE in a statement Tuesday night that Biles had "withdrawn from the team final competition due to a medical issue. She will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions."
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Biles later told reporters that she withdrew for her mental health and that she's "okay, just dealing with some things internally which will get fixed out in the next couple of days." She added that she worried her stress would negatively impact her performance and her team's chances to medal.
Phelps, 36, who is working as a TV analyst for NBC during the Tokyo Olympics, explained that he understands that "the Olympics is overwhelming," and he knows the emotions behind athletes who carry "the weight of the world," also noting that Biles' situation "broke my heart."
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"We're humans, right? We're human beings. Nobody is perfect so yes, it is okay to not be okay. It's okay to go through ups and downs and emotional roller coasters," Phelps said to host Mike Tirico. "But I think the biggest thing is we all need to ask for help sometimes too when we go through those times. For me, I can say personally it was something 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 [my] shoulders. It's a tough situation."
He continued, "We need someone who we can trust. Somebody that can let us be ourselves and listen. Allow us to become vulnerable. Somebody who's not going to try and fix us. We carry a lot of things, a lot of weight on our shoulders, and it's challenging, especially when we have the lights on us and all of these expectations being thrown on top of us."
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Phelps has been open about his struggles with mental health throughout his the lateter part of his swimming and Olympic career, and spoke extensively about it in his HBO Sports documentary The Weight of Gold.
"I hope this is an opportunity for us to jump onboard and to even blow this mental health thing even more wide open. It is so much bigger than we can ever imagine," Phelps added while on air. "Look, for me when I started on this journey five years ago, I knew it was big. I knew it was going to be challenging. Five years into it now, it's even bigger than I can comprehend. So this is something that is going to take a lot of time, a lot of hard work and people that are willing to help."
"If we're not taking care of both [physical and mental health], how are we ever expecting to be 100%?" he said.
Phelps, whose Michael Phelps Foundation provides water safety and health and wellness programs for youth around the world, spoke with PEOPLE earlier this month about his own experience with mental health that left him contemplating suicide after the Olympics in 2012, saying there's always a challenge for athletes to admit their psychological struggles.
"Multiple days being in my room, not wanting to be alive, not really knowing what to do, where to go, who to turn to, being lost," he said. "That's when I actually asked for help."
He continued, "For years I stuffed my emotions away because I couldn't show that weakness or that vulnerability — it could give my competitors an edge. As an athlete, it's challenging, especially for a male. We're supposed to be big and strong and macho, not somebody who struggles with their emotions. But we're all human beings."
"I've seen firsthand how many athletes, how many humans are struggling just like I am," he said. "The reason I'm still here today is because I've opened up and talked about things that are hard to talk about."
If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.
To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics now on NBC.