Simone Biles to Pediatricians: “Speak Up” About Sexual Abuse

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Simone Biles holds a combined total of more than 30 Olympic and world championship medals in gymnastics, not to mention several world records. But there’s more to her than that, she said during a plenary session at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) virtual meeting.

“I’m a person at the end of the day and people respect that and understand that,” she said, noting that the positive support she received during the Japan summer games when she cited mental health concerns, and withdrew from several events, “made me feel whole as a person and an athlete.”

During her AAP keynote talk with AAP president Lee Savio Beers, MD, Biles, age 24, explained that “Growing up, we’re told ‘Push through, Push through,’ but I knew at that point [during the 2020 Tokyo games, held in 2021], I really couldn’t…my safety and my health were on the line.”

She also acknowledged that “I honestly expected a lot more backlash than what I got [for withdrawing]. What I got was an overwhelming outpouring of support and love and understanding. That’s something I never expected…so that was quite a twist for me.”

Research has shown that injury, overtraining, and pressure in competitive athletes can contribute to deteriorating mental health. Biles is one of many high-profile athletes, including tennis player Naomi Osaka and swimmer Michael Phelps, who have been outspoken about supporting the mental health of athletes. Biles has adopted a platform “to help advocate for mental health and support initiatives that provide education and assistance for children and young adults associated with adoption and foster care,” according to AAP News. Biles and siblings were in and out of foster care before being adopted by their grandparents.

Biles also discussed Larry Nassar, DO, the former team doctor of the U.S. women’s national gymnastics team. Nassar was slapped with lengthy prison sentences in 2017 for sexual abuse and child pornography, and tampering with evidence. Factors that enable sexual abuse by physicians were examined in a 2019 MedPage Today series.

In testimony before Congress in September, Biles said, “I blame Larry Nassar, and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse.” The gymnast pointed a finger at the FBI which “turned a blind eye” as Nassar molested young female patients, according to the Washington Post.

Asked what pediatricians can do to prevent abuse cases, Biles said, “If you see something, speak up no matter what the consequences are because not only could you be helping that individual, but you could be helping multiple individuals too.”

Biles said she hopes more youth athletic programs will create guidelines and handbooks to educate young children on recognizing and reporting abuses. “From a very young age, a lot of us are thrown into these sports and we don’t know what’s right or wrong, unless somebody sits down and tells us, or we have adults looking after us, so I think handbooks can be a really good thing.”

Biles told the AAP audience that, before becoming a gymnast, she wanted to follow her in her mother’s footsteps and become a pediatric nurse. “After making five World and two Olympic teams, the nursing career didn’t work out for me,” she said, “but…I’ve always wanted to help kids and I love kids…and I come from a family of [nurses].”

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