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    Im really proud of her: USA Olympic gymnast Sam Mikulak can empathize with Simone Biles

    TOKYO — Simone Biles is not a mint.

    Expecting Biles to produce medals on command, or not seeing her for anything beyond her athletic achievements, is dehumanizing, teammate Sam Mikulak said. It’s no wonder Biles reached a point where her mental health was precarious enough that she felt she had no choice but to withdraw from the team and all-around competitions.

    “You go on Twitter and everyone’s like, `Oh, I’m really expecting this. I want this from this person.’ And, `Oh, Simone is going to be the medal factory of the world,’” Mikulak said Wednesday night after the men’s all-around, where he finished 12th. 

    “When you get these conversations, all this hype and everyone starts talking about it, it gets in your head a lot and it starts changing you to what other people want you to be rather than you being able to stand up for yourself and be who you want to be,” Mikulak added. “It’s this little inception that happens slowly over time with all the pressures that we put on ourselves that we get from other people.”

    Daiki Hashimoto won the men’s all-around with a spectacular high bar routine, giving Japan its third consecutive Olympic title.

    Biles came to Tokyo as the biggest star of the Games, projected to win a record five gold medals. But she pulled out of Tuesday night’s team competition after the first event and has since withdrawn from Thursday’s all-around.

    Biles said she has been struggling with her mental health and it has manifested itself in “the twisties,” a dangerous situation where a gymnast loses her awareness in the air.

    Sam MIkulak and Simone Biles.

    The U.S. men’s and women’s gymnastics teams are both staying at a hotel near the arena, rather than in the Olympic Village, and Mikulak said he’s been able to talk with Biles. She and MyKayla Skinner were in the stands alongside Yul Moldauer, Shane Wiskus and Alec Yoder during the men’s all-around.

    “She seems like she’s doing what’s best for her, and it’s been awesome to see that she’s been able to go against the pressures of society and do what’s best for herself,” Mikulak said. “I’m really proud of her for prioritizing mental health and making sure that everyone knows and understands we’re not just athletes. We’re human beings, and sometimes it’s too much.”

    No one understands that better than he does.

    A six-time U.S. champion and three-time Olympian, Mikulak has more pure talent than any American since 2004 Olympic gold medalist Paul Hamm. But he has never fulfilled his potential on the international stage, with a bronze on high bar at the 2018 world championships his only medal at worlds or the Olympics.

    The disappointments never seemed to bother Mikulak, who is from Newport Beach, Calif., and embodies laid-back, Southern California cool. But the COVID-19 pandemic, and the yearlong delay in the Tokyo Games, left Mikulak no choice but to focus on his mental health and do the kind of self-examination he’d long avoided.

    The work transformed him, though Mikulak has said it’s an ongoing process. Just before he left for Tokyo, in fact, he was feeling some of the old anxiety, but was able to recognize it and address it.

    “Everyone really needs to start focusing on their mental health a lot more, really ask the hard questions for your personal self, because those are the questions that are going to eat you up when you get out in these big pressure situations and you feel these expectations from the whole world,” Mikulak said. “Being able to tackle it early on is going to be the solution in the future.”

    Mikulak has said he wishes he’d prioritized his mental health earlier. But at least he did it in time for Tokyo, which has been the “most stress-free” of his three Olympics.

    “All my previous Olympics, I feel like there was such a fear-based atmosphere,” Mikulak said. “That was due to me not really being my authentic self, and trying to be someone who is trying to be what everyone expects me to me.

    “For the first time, I’ve been able to come out here and say, `No, I’m not doing this for anyone else. I’m just doing this for myself. And whatever happens, I’m still gonna love myself. I’ve got a great support system. I’ve got a great life, and this doesn’t define me.’”

    He only hopes that one day, Biles will be able to say the same.

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