In 2021, we saw a real reckoning in sports because of two women: gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka. Individually, each athlete is groundbreaking in her own right. Biles is the most decorated gymnast in the world, has four skills named in her honor and was named TIME’s 2021 Athlete of the Year. Osaka has four Grand Slam singles titles to her name, is the first Asian player to reach a ranking of number one in the world for tennis, and ESPN has called her “one of the most accomplished tennis players of the Open Era.”
And while both Biles and Osaka are incredibly accomplished, they are on our list this year not because of their accolades, but because they did something wholly unusual in sports: They stood up for their own mental health. In May, Osaka withdrew from the French Open to focus on her mental health. Just a couple months later at the Tokyo Olympics, Biles withdrew to take care of her mental health after experiencing a phenomenon called “the twisties” in which a gymnast gets disoriented mid-air—a condition that can lead to devastating consequences.
Biles’ and Osaka’s decisions might not have been popular at the time, but they have led to greater discussions about the importance of athletes defending and caring for their own mental health.