Former Team USA gymnast praises Simone Biles as a “role model”

Simone Biles is one of the first world-renowned athletes to publicly prioritize mental health over competition — but the Tokyo Olympics certainly isn’t the first event where an athlete has felt a toll on their mental health. Former Team USA gymnast Nastia Liukin said what Biles did isn’t just important for fellow athletes, but for everyone watching.

“It was something that I will forever be so proud of her for doing because, you know she has set such a great example, obviously for everything she has done on the competition floor, but in my opinion, even more so off of the competition floor,” Liukin told CBS News. “And what she did here, putting her mental health and her safety first, was something I think a lot of people can learn from.”

Liukin, who competed in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, was in Tokyo as a commentator when Biles decided to drop out of several events to focus on herself. 

Gymnastics - Artistic - Olympics: Day 11
Simone Biles of Team USA competes during the women’s balance beam final on day 11 of the Tokyo Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on August 3, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Liukin, 31, said what Biles did in Tokyo is more impressive than what she did at the Rio Olympics in 2016. “She is kind of leading this next generation and showing them that, first of all, it’s OK to not be OK — even when you are the greatest of all time,” Liukin said. “You have the rest of your life to live. And that’s kind of what she was saying when I spoke to her.”

“Regardless of what she decides to do, if she decides to go on to try and make the Paris Olympics — only time will tell and only she knows — she really is setting that bar and really just being the best role model out there.”

Biles, a seven-time Olympic medalist, ended up to returning to the competition in Tokyo, earning bronze in the balance beam event.

“She said that that medal was the most meaningful, I think that kind of explains it all, because so often, we only care about a gold medal, and she kind of squashed that and put that aside and knows that athletes’ accomplishments, they don’t define us as humans. It’s what we’re passionate about, it’s what we stand up for, it’s what we speak up for,” Liukin said.

Olympians have long used their platforms to make an impact, and while their Olympic runs will eventually end, their voices won’t. To recognize athletes who are using their voices to help their communities, the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee have partnered with Procter & Gamble to help fund athletes’ charitable endeavors.

The Athletes for Good program has awarded 52 athletes with grants for the charity work they do outside the arena. Olympians like Simone Manuel, who works with The Conscious Kid, an organization that aims to promote healthy racial identity, were recognized for their work.

Liukin said the athletes who focus on helping their communities are “inspiring” because “as a society, we often only do hear about those athletes who win gold medals.”

“I feel like so often, we’re defined by our accomplishments on the competition floor, and that’s really what I loved [about Athletes for Good] was that, yes all these athletes are doing incredible things in their field of play, but everything they’re doing outside the competition is even more meaningful,” she said.

The five-time Olympic medalist said it could be hard for athletes to find other passions and prioritize them. “It took me a long time to kind of realize my passions outside of being a gymnast,” she said. 

From left, U.S. gymnasts Bridget Sloan, Alicia Sacramone, Samantha Peszek, Chellsie Memmel, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson display their silver medals after the women's gymnastics team finals at the Beijing Olympics on August 13, 2008. The Americans came in second place to the Chinese team.
From left, U.S. gymnasts Bridget Sloan, Alicia Sacramone, Samantha Peszek, Chellsie Memmel, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson display their silver medals after the women’s gymnastics team finals at the Beijing Olympics on August 13, 2008. The Americans came in second place to the Chinese team. AP Photo/Tom Curley

“When I competed, I was 18, and having achieving my ‘lifelong dream’ at 18 years old, it was mixed feelings because it was an incredible thing I had experienced, but it was kind of daunting and scary because I had the rest of my life to live,” Liukin said. “I had no idea what my passions were and what I wanted to do. I defined myself as a gymnast and only as a gymnast for so long.”

Liukin said moving to New York City and going to college helped her find her voice. “I am more than an athlete, and I am more than my medal count,” Liukin said.

She said if athletes are passionate about something and they feel comfortable, they should use their platforms to speak out, just like Biles did.

“You’re kind of letting people know they’re not alone,” she said. “And I think what Simone did — I’ve always admired her — but, beyond the accomplishments she has achieved, in my opinion what she did here in Tokyo was far more impressive than even what she did in Rio four or five years ago in winning all those medals.”