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Athletes face pressure to succeed even in youth sports

WCPO 9 Cincinnati
WCPO 9 Cincinnati
 2021-07-28
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Since American gymnastics star Simone Biles announced she was withdrawing from the individual all-around competition, her decision has sparked a conversation around athletes' mental health and the immense pressure many who dream of Olympic gold face from a young age.

Those dreams usually start in more humble beginnings, at a more local level.

"As he's six or seven years old, you're thinking, 'Hey, maybe one day the Olympics,'" said Ronnel Spears, the father of RJ Spears, who is now preparing to walk on as a gymnast with the Naval Academy.

RJ, a Cincinnati native, spent more than 13 years building his talent to perform on a collegiate level. Over the years, he said being the only Black gymnast had its own pressures.

"Last year was that breaking point, where I was like, 'I've had enough of this,'" he said.

His family pushed him to lead by example, but they said that added stress to succeed is common in the sport.

"To get out there and to perform at such a high level, you know, week after week, month after month, year after year, I just have a tremendous amount of respect for them," said Ronnell.

That pressure is one of many reasons Biles said she would no longer compete with her team.

"I've just never felt like this going into a competition before, and I tried to go out here and have fun and the warmup in the back went a little bit better, but then once I came out here I was like, 'No, the mental is not there,'" said Biles on Wednesday.

In a statement, the United States gymnastics team wrote that they support Biles' decision and "applaud her bravery in prioritizing her well-being."

Dominique Dawes, an Olympic gold medalist, said she's also proud of Biles' decision.

"She's been labeled as the GOAT, she's been an Olympian before, she's expected to bring home five-plus Olympic medals and also lead the team," said Dawes. "There is a lot that is put upon this young girl."

Sport psychologist Dr. Barbara Walker said Biles' decision brings to mind Naomi Osaka's recent remarks on mental health.

"She's been really the first person that I know that has really been number one in her sport who has really taken a stand in her mental health, which is great," said Walker. "Like really recognizing what she needs versus what everyone else needs. It sounds like Simone is really recognizing that as well."

Biles said, for her, it's about putting mental health first and focusing on herself.

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