By Tori Mason

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – Simone Biles’ unexpected exit from USA gymnastics team finals Tuesday turned the world’s attention to the topic of mental health. Her decision to step away resonated with current and former Olympians, one who went on to help struggling families in Colorado.

When Carrie Bates was a little girl, she dreamed of becoming an Olympian. The California native would wake up in the early morning hours for practice and read the goals she’d written on her wall.

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Bates’ hard work eventually paid off. The swimmer won gold medals in the 100-meter freestyle, 4×100 meter freestyle relay and the 4×100 meter medley relay at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, not far from home.

“When I was on the award stand, I could hear one of my brothers yelling in the stands. That’s how aware we are of our family and supporters’ presence,” said Bates. “I can’t imagine what the athletes are going through this year. I have to imagine that plays into some of the mental health stuff we’re seeing, just not having that support with them.”

Due to COVID-19, friends and families of competitors were not permitted to attend the games. For the first time, many athletes are competing without their support groups present on the world’s biggest stage. Families like that of gymnast Simone Biles held watch parties in their hometowns.

Simone Biles of the United States looks on during the artistic gymnastics women's team final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 27, 2021.

Simone Biles of the United States looks on during the artistic gymnastics women’s team final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 27, 2021. (Photo by Cao Can/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Early Tuesday morning, Americans woke up to the news that Biles pulled out of the USA team final. Initial reports said Biles was injured, but the gymnast later explained she left the floor due to mental reasons. Doctors say mental struggles are just as, if not more traumatic, than physical ones.

“It’s basically an assault to our natural functioning. There is time to push through. However, sometimes if we push through and there’s not the right adjustment possible, we might create damage that is irreparable. It seems like Simone knew within herself that if she pushed through this one, there may be not only a setback, but an ending to something,” said Dr. Anat Geva, a clinical psychiatrist with the HealthONE Behavioral Health and Wellness Center.

Geva applauds Biles for her bravery and shining a light on the importance of mental health. Olympians aren’t the only ones affected by pressure. Geva says we should all prioritize self-maintenance often.

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“It’s going to take more than one ‘mental health day’ to get back on our feet. I would encourage people not only to take those single mental health days, but to actually break them down or break them up into manageable chunks either through a day or through a week or through a month, so that it becomes a self-sustaining process,” said Geva.

Bates says she didn’t begin struggling with her mental health until years after she was done competing.

“The lights went off, the competition was over and there was no more racing. There was no more winning. There’s a lot of serotonin and high highs when we’re competing, but there’s also some low lows,” said Bates. “Elite athletes are not really given a lot of tools to help us understand what life is going to be like once you remove sports.”

After winning gold, Bates struggled with sobriety and found help at the Betty Ford Center in Los Angeles. She says she doesn’t regret a minute of her journey because it led to her recovery, and her becoming the mother she is today.

“If I hadn’t experienced any of it, I wouldn’t be where I am now. To be honest with you, my greatest achievement is my sobriety and my family and how we’ve all kind of recovered together,” said Bates. “The medals are wonderful, but those medals don’t protect us from life’s challenges and they certainly don’t leave us immune to the struggles in life that people face.”

Now Bates is helping other families struggling with addiction at a branch of the same center she found help – the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Aurora. Her struggles with mental health led her to a place where she could help others.

When it comes to Simone Biles, Bates says the gymnast won gold the second she left the mat.

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“She gave the world a shining gift today. It may not have been in the form of a gold medal, but what she did for millions of people was tell them that it’s okay to not be okay. Take care of yourself. That message is what I believe will be one of the biggest parts of her legacy,” said Bates.

Tori Mason