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‘We’re human, too’: Simone Biles highlights importance of mental health in Olympics withdrawal

Simone Biles knew she was carrying a lot when she walked into the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on Tuesday.

As the face of the U.S. Olympic team, she was shouldering her country’s gold medal hopes. As the greatest gymnast of all time, she was toting expectations for athletic dominance and repeated brilliance. As an outspoken advocate for female athletes, she was lugging around the pressure to make her fans proud.

Or, as she put it Monday, she was carrying “the weight of the world” on her shoulders. And she was making it look easy. Until it no longer was.

In making the stunning decision to withdraw from the team final competition Tuesday, Biles acknowledged the tremendous pressure she had been facing as the “head star of the Olympics” and said she needed to focus on her mental health.

“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day, we’re human, too,” Biles said, according to The Associated Press. “We have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, said she was not in the right state of mind to continue the competition.

“Physically, I feel good,” she told Hoda Kotb on NBC’s “TODAY” show after she withdrew. “Emotionally, that kind of varies on the time and moment. Coming here to the Olympics and being the head star of the Olympics isn’t an easy feat. So we’re just trying to take it one day at a time, and we’ll see.”

Biles’ candid admission, which follows Naomi Osaka’s decision this year to withdraw from tennis tournaments to protect her mental health, again put a global spotlight on the often taboo subject of mental health in sports.

Osaka, the No. 2-ranked player in the world, stepped away from the French Open and withdrew from Wimbledon to prioritize her mental health.

“I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s OK to not be OK; and it’s OK to talk about it,” she wrote in Time magazine. “There are people that can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.”

Biles said she was inspired by Osaka and would tell others who are struggling to put their own needs first.

“Put mental health first, because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to,” she said. “So it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor that you really are, rather than just battle through it.”

Olympic athletes are competing in exceedingly unusual circumstances this year. They face more isolation this year with the Games taking place as the world is still in the coronavirus pandemic. And because Tokyo is under a state of emergency, spectators have been barred from most events where the athletes are competing.

“It’s been really stressful this Olympic Games,” Biles said. “Just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week. It’s been a long Olympic process. It’s been a long year. So just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out. We should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.”

After the U.S. team struggled during the qualifying rounds, Biles wrote Monday on Instagram that she felt “like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times.”

“I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The olympics is no joke!” she wrote. “BUT I’m happy my family was able to be with me virtually🤍 they mean the world to me!”

Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a psychiatrist who has frequently worked with student-athletes and professional athletes, said the societal expectations from fans, the media and others can make athletes feel as though “every single step that they take will be significantly scrutinized, and this kind of pressure is so severe” that they can have trouble even focusing on their day-to-day activities.

She said athletes like Biles, “who have such stature” and are “essentially symbolizing and representing a country,” can have so much anticipatory anxiety and face such enormous pressure to be perfect and never falter that “in this way they lose that passion for the game that was the first reason they joined the game in the first place.”

Magavi said she commends Biles for prioritizing her mental health needs over “societal expectations.”

“It really does take courage and emotional strength,” she said.

Biles got an outpouring of support after she withdrew.

Former Team USA gymnast Aly Raisman told “TODAY” that it was important to “think about how much pressure has been on her, and there’s only so much that someone can take.”

“She’s human, and I think sometimes people forget that, and Simone, just like everyone else, is doing the best that she can,” she said.

“I also am just thinking about the mental impact that this has to have on Simone,” Raisman continued. “It’s just so much pressure, and I’ve been watching how much pressure has been on her in the months leading up to the Games, and it’s just devastating. I feel horrible.”

At the news conference Tuesday, Biles said she knew she needed to take a step back to “work on my mindfulness” and give her teammates the chance to take over, so as not to hurt their medal chances.

She competed in Team USA’s first rotation on the vault but bailed out of her Amanar vault. She completed only 1½ twists on a 2½-twisting Yurchenko vault and then took a stumble on the landing.

“I didn’t want to risk the team a medal,” she said of her decision to withdraw. “They’ve worked way too hard for that, so I just decided that those girls need to go in and do the rest of the competition.”

Biles, Jordan Chiles, Sunisa Lee and Grace McCallum of Team USA took silver. The Russian Olympic Committee team won gold.

Biles won five medals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Asked about Thursday’s individual all-around competition, Biles said, “We’re going to take it day by day, and we’re just going to see.”

A day later, USA Gymnastics confirmed that she was withdrawing from the event.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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