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Former Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee weighs in on athletes' mental health after Biles withdrawal

Joyner-Kersee supports Simone Biles and hopes it opens the conversation about athletes' mental health
Credit: Pepper Baker

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — Former Olympic gold medalist and track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee enjoys the fruits of her labor in retirement, but she remembers a time when it wasn't so easy.

"If you talked about anything mentally, as an athlete that's a sign of weakness," she said.

She faced a mental block in 1984 after coming off an injury.

"Even though my coaches and everyone else was saying that I was ready, I just didn't believe I was ready, so after I left the Los Angeles Games I left there with a mindset that if I'm to make another Olympic team I said, 'God, I want to be the toughest athlete out there mentally,'" Joyner-Kersee said.

A mutual feeling she shares with Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who withdrew from the U.S. Gymnastics team finals because of the emotional toll. 

"The demands, the request, they're coming in constantly and trying to find that balance because you don't want to disappoint," Joyner-Kersee said.

Founder of Mind Body and Endurance, sport psychologist Riley Nickols helps athletes build their mental skills and said they should be treated just like physical skills.

"She nor any other athlete is not immune to whether it's the pressures or mental health challenges that just can and do exist, and I think it takes a lot of humility and maturity to acknowledge these struggles," Nickols said.

Joyner-Kersee supports Biles and hopes it will bring more understanding to the pressure of Olympic sports.

"Even when I read what Simone said that she has hope that people will continue to love her, that just broke my heart, because I would hope and believe that people aren't just loving you because you're a great champion," Joyner-Kersee said.