Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, who has used her influence to speak out against injustices, arrives at her second Olympics prepared to soar above the sport’s devastating recent history.
By Juliet Macur
In the many months leading to this summer, Simone Biles couldn’t wait for the Tokyo Olympics.
Not for them to start. For them to end.
The weight she carried as the face of the sport had become a burden. And the wear and tear on her body had become what she called “unreal,” with the pain in her ankles making every excruciating step a reminder of how unforgiving gymnastics can be.
In a telephone interview about a week before leaving for the Tokyo Games, she was asked to name the happiest moment of her career.
“Honestly, probably my time off,” she said.
Coming from the most decorated gymnast in history, a woman who revolutionized the sport, it was a striking comment.
Five years ago, Biles did everything her sport and her country asked her to. Sporting a red, white and blue bow in her hair, she helped the United States women’s gymnastics team secure its third consecutive team Olympic gold medal and then won three individual gold medals, in the all-around, the vault and the floor exercise. She emerged from those Games as America’s sweetheart, the itchy sash placed on every great American female gymnast.
Then, only weeks after she returned from Rio, came the revelation that the people responsible for protecting gymnasts and safeguarding the integrity of the sport had failed catastrophically to do either, revealing an entrenched culture of physical and emotional abuse.
U.S.A. Gymnastics had looked the other way as Lawrence G. Nassar, a longtime national team doctor, molested hundreds of female athletes, including many of Biles’s teammates — and, though it took time for her to realize it, Biles herself.
Biles had dedicated herself to gymnastics, sacrificing a normal life of school, dances, football games and friends for the grinding pursuit of perfection. After bringing gold medals to U.S.A. Gymnastics as that governing body had wanted, she inspired countless girls of color to take up the traditionally white sport and became the face of gymnastics around the world. She also came to believe that her sport didn’t care for her at all.
She has said she feels betrayed, and that makes the initial trauma even worse. Yet she has managed to set aside those feelings and harness the newfound power of an independent Black woman who knows her worth and answers to no one. No longer just a sweetheart, she has joined top Black female athletes like Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams in flexing her influence in sports and society.
In a show of defiance and resilience in a sport that has long demanded obedience from its young athletes, Biles is the only Nassar survivor, at least the only one who has come forward publicly, who will compete in Tokyo.
“I’m going to go out there and represent the U.S.A., represent World Champions Centre, and represent Black and brown girls over the world,” she said in the telephone interview. “At the end of the day, I’m not representing U.S.A. Gymnastics.”
Last month, after winning a record seventh national championship, Biles got a tattoo on her collarbone. It is just four words from a Maya Angelou poem about self-confidence and Black pride in the face of oppression. The words can also be read as her athletic credo as she launches herself off each apparatus in an effort to become the first female gymnast in a half-century to win back-to-back titles in the Olympic all-around.
The tattoo says, “and still I rise.”
A duty to speak out
For her dominance, individuality and longevity in the sport, Biles, 24, has been compared to Serena Williams, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods. But the analogy minimizes her athletic brilliance because those competitors lose from time to time — and she doesn’t. Biles hasn’t lost an all-around title since 2013, when her smile glinted silver because she still wore braces.
She is the rarest of American gymnastics stars, and not just because of her winning streak or because she has appeared on the covers of Vogue and Glamour.
She is unusual because she is outspoken.
Most who came before her didn’t dare express their opinions. Gymnastics is a subjective sport and no one wanted to antagonize competition judges or U.S.A. Gymnastics, the entity that selects the national and Olympic teams.
Like so many other gymnasts, Biles once kept her emotions locked up, especially at the gym, and let them out only in private.
But in early 2018, a day before Nassar’s main sentencing hearing, the pressure she felt to hold everything inside became too great. She knew Nassar had touched her inappropriately, but she had minimized the abuse because she knew he had done worse things to her teammates.
Finally, she understood: She too had been molested. Biles, no longer a teenager, wanted the world to know so she could lend power to the survivors’ movement.
“Most of you know me as a happy, giggly, energetic girl,” she wrote on Twitter. “But lately … I’ve felt a bit broken and the more I try to shut off the voice in my head, the louder it screams.” She tagged the post with #MeToo.
In the weeks and months afterward, she fell into a deep depression and slept a lot because, as she told Vogue magazine last year, “it was the closest thing to death without harming myself.” She felt she had let down her fans because America wanted her to be perfect. Therapy helped, she told The New York Times, and she publicly encouraged others to get help if they were struggling.
Biles soon realized that her words were powerful.
Three days after she tweeted that national team gymnasts shouldn’t have to return to the training center in Texas where Nassar molested so many girls, U.S.A. Gymnastics severed ties with it. Four days after Biles criticized Mary Bono, then the chief executive of U.S.A. Gymnastics, for seeming to disapprove of Nike supporting Colin Kaepernick’s choice to kneel during the national anthem, Bono stepped down from the position.
Biles became such a force that her teammates started asking her to tweet that the team should get all-expenses-paid vacations to the Caribbean. With her increasing fame, though, came a growing sense of duty that extended beyond gymnastics.
She told people to vote, denounced violence against Asian Americans, remarked that electricity and clean water should be more accessible and said that everyone should be more accepting and “not give a damn about race, gender, sexual orientation.” During the protests after George Floyd’s killing last year, she supported Black Lives Matter, keenly aware that people were looking to hear what she had to say about it.
Like many Americans, Biles was incensed by what happened to Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others, and was deflated thinking about how many other murders were not caught on videotape or acknowledged by the public. But when addressing these issues and others on social media, she does so with trepidation.
“I feel like I realized that power after I came out, after the #MeToo movement, and that was kind of scary,” she said of her Nassar-related announcement. “But it’s like, wow, my presence is very big in gymnastics but also online, just in the world in general. So I have to be a bit careful about what I say.”
It’s a problem she never dreamed of while living in foster care in Columbus, Ohio, as her mother was struggling with addiction.
Because she can
Biles remembers life before foster care: eating cereal with water because the family couldn’t afford milk and watching with disdain as the cat was fed when she and her siblings were not.
She ended up in a privileged white community in suburban Houston after her maternal grandfather, Ron, and his second wife, Nellie, adopted her and her younger sister, Adria, when Simone was 6. They now call Nellie and Ron Mom and Dad.
Her stepbrother Adam would drive Simone and Adria to school while encouraging them to shout, “Say it loud! I’m Black and I’m proud!” because he wanted them to be confident in themselves, though they didn’t look like most of the other students. They didn’t look like other gymnasts, either.
The same year she was adopted, Simone Biles visited a gym in Houston during a field trip with her day care center. A coach recognized her gift: Simone possessed a keen awareness of where she was in the air, so she would always land on her feet.
Later, that catlike quality of her 4-foot-8 body would help her land intricate and risky tricks that push the boundaries of her sport, including four skills now named after her because she was the first woman to perform them in an international competition.
“Simone is so good that the rest of us can only hope to finish second to her in the all-around,” Sunisa Lee, Biles’s Olympic teammate, said. “What else can you do? She does all sorts of crazy things no one else can do.”
At the Olympics, Biles hopes to add one more move to the list of those named after her: the Yurchenko double pike on the vault. She sprints down the runway, pushes off the table with her hands while upside down, and lands, two and a half flips later, on her feet. If she fails to rotate fast enough to get her feet under her, she could break her neck or ankles, or sustain a spinal cord injury. Biles still can’t believe she safely landed one at the U.S. Classic in May.
The risk did not show in her score, though, and Biles was not surprised. She and her supporters have long complained that her difficulty scores, which indicate how hard a routine is, are set too low, resulting in overall scores that don’t reflect the magnificence of what she has done.
At the 2019 world championships, Biles debuted a double twisting double somersault for her balance beam dismount, which was then named after her. But the difficulty score for her routine was lower than expected. There is speculation that the international gymnastics federation undervalues her scores to discourage other gymnasts from trying such hazardous moves. Biles believed the federation simply wanted to rein her in.
She has given up arguing that her skills deserve higher difficulty scores because “she doesn’t want to be a brat about it.” Besides, she doesn’t need judges to validate that she is phenomenal; she knows that already. And flaunts it.
On the competition floor, Biles wears leotards bedazzled with a rhinestone goat, declaring that she is the GOAT, the greatest of all time.
She was asked in May, why do the impossibly hard skills if you don’t get rewarded for it?
She said, “Because I can.”
What else can Biles do because she can?
In May, when her contract with Nike ended, she left to sign with the women’s clothing company Athleta. Nike had been criticized for the way it treated its female employees and sponsored athletes, including penalizing athletes when they became pregnant.
For Biles, the switch was easy because Athleta “aligned with her values.” It was also willing to sponsor her post-Olympic, all-women tour called the Gold Over America Tour — for short, G.O.A.T.
The move dealt a direct blow to U.S.A. Gymnastics, which usually hosts its own tour after the Olympics in which gymnasts perform and drum up cash and interest in the sport. But with no Biles, there could be no tour. Biles’s decision also hurt the gymnasts on the men’s national team because it deprived them of potentially tens of thousands of dollars.
But Biles had to be merciless. The best interests of what could be called Simone Inc. were at stake.
“I had some of the guys reach out to me even the other day, ‘Are you sure the tour is all girls?’” she said. “I said: ‘Yes, I’m sorry. It’s not up to me for you to find or make money. That’s up to you and your agent.’”
The chief executive of U.S.A. Gymnastics, Li Li Leung, who took over in 2019 but has never met one on one with Biles, said she supported Biles’s enterprise. She said the federation wasn’t planning to host a tour this summer and the usual tour didn’t make that much money, anyway.
U.S.A. Gymnastics knows it has a good thing in Biles. And it desperately needs her after losing major sponsors like Visa and Procter & Gamble because of the abuse scandal. Under the weight of more than 200 Nassar-related lawsuits, the organization filed for bankruptcy protection in late 2018.
Bill Mallon, an Olympic historian, put it this way: U.S.A. Gymnastics has to tolerate whatever Biles does because its best hope of bouncing back from the Nassar scandal is … Simone Biles.
“She’s the saving grace for U.S.A. Gymnastics, whether they have admitted it or not,” he said. “Boy, they are a mess. If it wasn’t for her, I really don’t know how they would still be around.”
Without Biles, the sport also wouldn’t be as diverse as it is, or as it will be, either. One look at the gymnasts inside her Texas gym shows that.
Black and brown gymnasts from across the country, including the Olympian Jordan Chiles, have come to train with her at World Champions Centre, a gym owned by Biles’s mother. At the national championships, all six elite gymnasts from the gym were Black.
Chiles said that when she arrived at the center in June 2019, she was taken by surprise because she had never seen as many gymnasts of color in one place.
“It’s pretty cool that kids will look at us, just the way we looked at Simone, and say, ‘Yeah, if she can do this, maybe we can do this, too,’” Chiles said.
Living like a grown-up
Biles hasn’t said whether these Olympics will be her last. She has hinted about coming back for the 2024 Paris Games, though just in the vault, to honor her French coaches. But she is ready to retire; you can hear it in her voice. I’m old, she says. I’m tired. Stressed out. Everything hurts.
Mentally, the past five years have been what she called “a long journey.” When the Olympics were postponed from 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, Biles curled up in a corner of the gym’s locker room and cried. She didn’t want to be associated with U.S.A. Gymnastics any longer than she had to.
One of her coaches, Cecile Landi — who is serving as her personal coach in Tokyo — coaxed Biles to take time off: go on vacation, look for a bigger house, get a hot tub, relax.
The suggestion allowed Biles to savor the bigger world around her. She bought a house in Spring, Texas, and made it her own with the help of one of her best friends, Kayla Rivers, who is an interior designer. They put together mood boards, with the overarching theme being anything luxurious and glam.
The relaxed, grown-up Biles also got herself a boyfriend, Jonathan Owens, a safety in the N.F.L. for the Houston Texans. They met when she sent him an Instagram direct message last summer and have been inseparable. At first, he had no clue who she was. He is still floored that she is featured on TV commercials and that girls squeal when they see her in public and ask for a selfie.
In February, she and Owens flew to Belize, where Nellie Biles is from, and took a couples vacation, riding on Jet Skis and swimming with sharks. They sipped cocktails and celebrated being young and in love.
Biles has no idea what she’ll do after gymnastics. Work in her gym? Coach in college? She is excited about her next chapter, but it scares her. Before that, though, she has to perform at the Olympics for the public that adores her and the sport that might have destroyed her.
“It’s like, OK, get here and be done,” Biles said of her gymnastics career. “You want it to come, but you also don’t want it to end.”
She added: “At the end of the day, I’m such a huge athlete, but who am I? If you take off that mask, you know, who will I be? I’m still trying to find that out.”
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