Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images
Olympic athletes are notoriously strong and steady. Year after year, female gymnasts make soaring 10 feet into the air and landing flips on 4-inch-wide balance beams look easy—but no one sees the extreme physical and mental stress they endure privately while competing. For six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman (the 2012 and 2016 US Women's Gymnastics Team captain) the pressure to perform was monumental—even though, to the whole world watching, she appeared to be entirely composed.
"When I was training, we weren't supposed to be vulnerable," Raisman, 27, tells HelloGiggles over a recent phone call. "We had to act like everything was fine and not show that we were struggling. I thought that that was the way it had to be because that's what I was taught."
"I tried not to be vulnerable publicly," she continues. "But I was a lot more emotional in the gym because I was so overtired, and it was so hard for me to handle the pressure."
During this year's Olympic games in Tokyo, the world watched as that pressure came to a head for Raisman's former teammate Simone Biles, aka, the greatest gymnast of all time. On July 27th, Biles, favored to take home at least three gold medals this year, withdrew from several Olympic events to focus on her mental health. Her exit followed tennis star Naomi Osaka's decision to withdraw from the French Open in June to tend to her anxiety and depression—a choice for which Osaka was criticized by some for what they deemed "diva behavior". Biles, too, faced backlash for her early exit, with critics calling her decision "weak."
However, despite the criticism, both Osaka and Biles have also received praise from many people for putting their mental health first. It's an important shift in how seriously the well-being of professional athletes is taken today compared to 2016, when stars like Raisman were expected to push their struggles to the side to get the job done.
"We're living in such a different time [from 2016] when the mental health of athletes is an important conversation, and people are so supportive when an athlete speaks out," Raisman says now. "It's great to see so many athletes feeling comfortable and safe to speak out, because it gives other people the courage to share their experiences and be more honest about what they're going through."
The gymnast admits that the pressure she felt to perform five years ago didn't go away even once she officially retired from the sport in 2020 to pursue activism instead. In fact, Raisman says now that her "harsh self-talk" stuck around long after she hung up her leotard.
"I grew up in a very intense environment where I felt like my self-worth was derived not only from my [gymnastics] results, but also from the approval of the adults around me," she explains. "There are times when I'm really hard on myself that I have to stop and ask, 'Is this actually me talking to myself or did I just adopt the way someone else who wasn't treating me well talked to me when I was younger?'"
"Now, I pay attention to my inner dialogue," she continues. "Being mean to myself didn't serve me."
For athletes who spend their entire lives training to compete at the Olympics, it can be difficult to find fulfillment outside of the gym afterward. Biles admitted to feeling the weight of this concern after her withdrawal, tweeting, "I'm more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before." During our conversation, Raisman (who has spoken out in support of Biles' decision) opens up her struggle to discover her own identity post-retirement.
"If I took away my gymnastics career and my life in the public eye, without that, who am I?" Raisman recalls thinking. "What do I like to do? What am I passionate about? What makes me feel happy, sad, calm? One of the most valuable things I've done is just figuring out who I am and what I want out of life."
Which, she learned, is to help other women. Since retiring, Raisman has grown into an author and passionate activist; in 2018, she came forward as a sexual assault survivor of Larry Nassar, delivering a powerful statement at the trial of the former US women's national gymnastics team doctor (which helped put him behind bars for life). Since them, the gymnast has spent her time advocating for causes like body positivity by partnering with inclusive brands like Aerie, and mental health awareness by chatting with therapists on social media.
Now, Raisman is the face of Olay's Power of a Dream campaign, which encourages young women to pursue careers in STEM through virtual events with Million Women Mentors. Raisman has worked with Olay for several years, and says she loves that the brand is "all about empowering women."
"I feel so inspired by the younger generation," she adds, referring to the campaign's target audience. "They're so empathetic, intelligent, and passionate about changing the world. They have this incredible drive to do things that are bigger than themselves."
Whether it's on the Olympic stage, in the court room, or on social media, Raisman has spent years taking on things bigger than herself, with every intention of continuing to do so in the future; but now, she's also not afraid to be honest when she's struggling.
"Slowly, over time, I've learned that it's okay to be vulnerable," she says. "It's okay to show people that my life isn't perfect. No one's life is perfect."