Simone Biles has been named Time’s 2021 Athlete of the Year, the magazine announced on Thursday.
The news comes five months after her historic appearance at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where she tied the American record for career Olympics medals but also withdrew from most of her events following a case of “the twisties”.
She has since become a poster child for mental health advocacy, opening up discussions of the issue at an unprecedented level in US sports.
This latest honor from Time, honoring Biles’ activism as much as her performance—she dominated pre-Olympic competitions and still medaled twice in Tokyo—follows her appearance on the Time 100 in September for the same.
Her resilience during the Games in Japan was also commended, as she faced major criticism for her choice to step away and some went so far as to call her a quitter and unpatriotic.
She notes in her interview with Time that such criticisms overlook her experience of sex abuse at the hands of the disgraced former trainer Larry Nassar, and her fight for a better US system even as she persevered in the sport herself.
(In September, the same month she was named to the Time list, she testified on the failures of the US government, USA Gymnastics, and Olympics officials in relation to the Nassar affair.)
“If I were going to quit, I had other opportunities to quit,” she told Time.
“There is so much I’ve gone through in this sport, and I should have quit over all that—not at the Olympics.”
The magazine notes that Biles is the only victim of Nassar who is still competing. And that she has received therapy in the years since. She had stopped treatment, however, shortly before arriving in Tokyo.
Fortunately, Team USA implemented an on-site mental health team for the first time this year, who helped her decide whether she wanted to attempt to continue her events following an initial scare and injury due to mid-air disorientation.
She eventually dropped all her events except one: the balance beam, where she triumphed on the final day of gymnastics competition with a bronze medal.
“I wanted to compete at the Olympics again and have that experience that I came for,” she said.
“I didn’t really care about the outcome. On that beam, it was for me.”
Following the Games, she launched her “Gold Over America Tour”, which featured Biles and fellow female gymnasts from around the world performing a gymnastic-musical fusion routine meant to inspire young girls to follow their athletic dreams.
The nationwide slate of events received rave reviews and concluded last month.
Biles told Time she is also back in therapy following the unexpected experience in Japan, and that she ultimately has no regrets about her decision to prioritize her health over a medal count or pressure to succeed.
For that, the most decorated gymnast ever, a Black Catholic, is now the Athlete of the Year and—to most onlookers—the greatest of all time.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).