The Olympic Games are always inspiring, but this year’s event in Tokyo was especially touching. No matter their sport, all the athletes involved in the 2021 Olympics finally had a chance to achieve a lifelong dream after years of hard work and dedication, not to mention their perseverance in the face of the global pandemic that’s turned our world upside down.
After a year and a half of challenges, it all culminated in an impressive show of strength, determination and raw talent. This year’s games were the source of several inspiring, motivating and emotional moments, but one common thread that has emerged throughout it all is a fundamental change in the conversation surrounding mental health.
From Simone Biles to Naomi Osaka, many of the athletes that competed in this year’s Games were outspoken about their own mental health struggles, opening up the floor for others to feel comfortable doing the same. This year’s Olympics were full of ground-breaking milestones that will continue to have positive ripple effects well into the future of the Games, and society at large.
Here are 10 of the most inspirational moments from the 2021 Olympics
1. Teahna Daniels Honoring Her Father’s Memory
While representing the U.S. in the women’s 100 meters relay final, 24-year-old Teahna Daniels honored her late father by wearing a necklace with the date of his death engraved in it. Daniels explained the memento by noting that when her father passed away three years ago, she found it difficult to find the motivation to keep going, but wearing the necklace reminds her that it’s him she’s running towards at the finish line.
2. Haley Daniels and Her Father Making History Together
Haley Daniels and her father, Kimberly Daniels, both made history at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics for entirely separate reasons. Haley was the first female canoeist to represent Canada at the Olympics, while Kimberly became the first-ever transgender Olympic Official after coming out in 2020.
3. Simone Biles Putting Her Mental Health First at the 2021 Olympics
American gymnast Simone Biles, who has earned 32 medals in her record-breaking career, stepped away from the 2021 Olympics to focus on her mental health, ultimately contributing to a massive shift in the public perception of athletes’ mental wellbeing. Biles, who is a survivor of sexual abuse by the former physician for the U.S. gymnastics team, helped to normalize the prioritization of mental health through her unprecedented move and pave the way for so many young athletes who will walk in her footsteps in the future.
4. Penny Olesiak Becoming the Most Decorated Canadian Olympian
After making waves during the 2016 Olympics by winning four medals, 21-year-old swimmer Penny Olesiak made history again at the 2021 Olympics, where she won three more medals. This earned her the title of Canada’s most decorated Olympian ever, which she acknowledged in a tongue-in-cheek tweet referencing a teacher who had suggested she quit swimming to focus on her schoolwork.
5. Japan Taking Home 3 Gold Medals for Skateboarding at the 2021 Olympics
In the first Olympics ever to feature skateboarding as an event, Japan cleaned up with three gold medals, one silver and one bronze for a total of five medals. Yuto Horigome, 22, Sakura Yosozumi, 19, and Momiji Nishiya, 13, all earned gold in skateboarding, while Kokona Hiraki, 12, earned silver and Sky Brown, 13, won bronze.
6. Daniel Gaysinsky Being the First to Represent Canada in Olympic Karate
Daniel Gaysinsky became the first and only athlete to represent Canada in Olympic karate at this year’s event. The organization has confirmed the 2024 Olympics won’t feature karate as an event again, so this year was Gaysinsky’s only shot to show off his skills to the world.
7. Noah Lyles Keeping the Mental Health Conversation Going at the 2021 Olympics
Another athlete to push the boundaries by being open about their mental health this year was Noah Lyles, who won bronze in the 200-meter sprint despite having been on track for gold. He opened up about the mental and emotional struggles he’s endured throughout his journey, his experiences with antidepressants, and his relationship with his brother, Josephus, who wasn’t able to achieve his dream of competing at the 2021 Olympics. The open display of raw emotion touched people around the globe and continued to foster a more positive, honest conversation surrounding mental health.
8. Allyson Felix Becoming the Most Decorated Track-and-Field Athlete in American History
American Allyson Felix won her 11th career medal during the 2021 Olympics, becoming the country’s most decorated track-and-field athlete in history. The 35-year-old athlete has competed in five Olympics throughout her career, going out with a bang for her last Olympics ever, and inspiring women everywhere to achieve their dreams despite challenges. Over the years, Felix has also become an outspoken advocate for equality, and issues faced by Black women today, such as the maternal health crisis.
9. Naomi Osaka Lighting the Olympic Cauldron
Twenty-three-year-old Japanese-American tennis player, Naomi Osaka, made history this Olympics as the first competitor to light the Olympic Cauldron since 2000. Olympic organizers chose the top-ranked tennis player for the task to convey a message of diversity, inclusion and hope amidst the pandemic. Osaka has also been outspoken about her mental health struggles in the past, withdrawing from the French Open and Wimbledon earlier this year to prioritize her wellbeing.
10. Tom Daley Knitting in the Stands
And finally, British diver Tom Daley warmed hearts all over the world with his charming hobby of knitting in the stands. Aside from winning a gold medal during the Olympics, Daley achieved another unforgettable milestone during the 2021 Games: finishing his Olympic-themed cardigan. To make this moment even more touching, Daley has dedicated his knitting page on Instagram (now sitting at a cool 1.3 million followers) to raising money for the Brain Tumour Charity in memory of his father.