Simone Biles is Time’s 2021 Athlete of the Year, the magazine announced Thursday. After Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open for her well-being and mental health, Biles “raised the volume” on the conversation given her status and platform, Time wrote. “I do believe everything happens for a reason, and there was a purpose,” she said, via Time. “Not only did I get to use my voice, but it was validated as well.”
Biles was expected to add five gold medals to her Olympic haul and perform yet another skill named after her on the international stage. She came into the delayed Games as the face of U.S. athletics, but during the team competition she experienced the “twisties” and lost herself in the air. She withdrew, cheering her teammates on from the stands, and did not return until the final competition, the balance beam.
Biles, the most decorated athlete in gymnastics history, received the honor for propelling the conversation on mental health to the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist. In withdrawing from events at the Tokyo Olympics she “made clear the importance of prioritizing oneself and refusing to succumb to external expectations,” Alice Park and Sean Gregory wrote for Time Magazine.
She left Tokyo with a silver in the team event and bronze on the beam, a record-tying seven medals for most by a U.S. gymnast. And she returned home a role model for every child or adult to put themselves and their mental health first, as the Time writers detail in their year-end profile of the 24-year-old.
Biles is the only survivor of former team doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse who is still competing and said it still weighed on her. In the lead-up to the Games she said she kept competing to put pressure on USA Gymnastics to initiate an investigation and change. And after the Olympics, she said the pressure should have led her to quit years ago when Nassar was constantly in the news.
Instead, she kept competing and told Time she thought she was OK heading into the Tokyo Games. But, unlike the two Olympics before, she was unable to bring family and couldn’t hang out with teammates because of COVID-19 protocols. It left her largely alone with her thoughts and focus on gymnastics.
“We couldn’t hang out because of COVID-19 protocols,” she told Time, “so things you normally don’t think about because you don’t have time, now you have hours on end to think about—those doubts, those worries and those problems.”
In Biles’ absence from competition, MyKayla Skinner won a surprising silver on vault and Sunisa Lee won gold in the all-around.
“What Simone did changed the way we view our well-being, 100%,” Lee told Time. “It showed us that we are more than the sport, that we are human beings who also can have days that are hard. It really humanized us.”
Colin Kaepernick, Kevin Love, Allyson Felix all spoke positively about Biles’ impact this summer in the profile. And professionals working in the mental health field praised her actions for helping Black girls and women take agency over their lives, bodies and mental health.
Time named LeBron James its Athlete of the Year in 2020 and the U.S. women’s national soccer team to it in 2019. It included Biles in its list of the 100 most influential people released in September.
The Athlete of the Year honor follows Sports Illustrated naming Tom Brady its Sportsperson of the Year earlier this week.