Friday essay: from delicate teens to fierce women, Simone Biles’ athleticism and advocacy have changed gymnastics forever
Casual Academic, The University of Queensland
Ella Donald does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, gymnastics got what it was looking for: an image.
Romania’s Nadia Comăneci was a tiny 14-year-old, leaping on the floor with a pixie-like grace, moving between the bars with lightning fast precision. On her first bar routine, she received a perfect ten: the first ever ten in Olympic Gymnastics .
She would go on to receive seven perfect tens over the course of the 1976 games.
Comăneci became an icon for the sport, and the image of a young, lithe girl, has endured.
Even through the loss of the perfect ten and the introduction of open scoring – favouring strength and power – women’s gymnastics is still too often dismissed as a sport of frivolity , dominated by children, meek and prepubescent, discouraged from expressing themselves.
Simone Biles – a confident, powerful woman at the peak of her powers in her early 20s – is a change to gymnastics that was inevitable, but is simultaneously one she has come to symbolise.
She is both the greatest gymnast ever, and unlike any gymnast the world ever has seen.
A punishing gymnastics monarch
Comăneci had her run in ‘76 thanks to husband-and-wife coaching team Bela and Márta Károlyi. To understand the pair is to understand the image of the Olympic champion.
Bela was a former boxing champion and member of the national hammer throwing team, later studying gymnastics while at the Romania College of Physical Education.
In his final year at the college he coached the women’s team, which included Márta. After starting their own class in the town where Bela grew up, they were invited to create a national school for gymnastics .
It was when he was training young girls, handpicked for the sport based on their specific body types, he first encountered six-year-old Comăneci.
The Karolyis produced outstanding athletes who seemingly achieved the impossible with focus and ease. In 1981, they defected to the United States , and continued their reign in a new country, building a gym in rural Texas they named Károlyi Ranch. By 1984, Bela had coached new Olympic champions in Mary Lou Retton and Julianne McNamara.
In 1999, Bela was appointed the national team coordinator ; and the isolated Károlyi Ranch was designated as the US Women’s National Training Centre. For many years, this gym was a mythologised site of gymnast creation: it would later extensively figure into the sexual abuse trial of former national team doctor Larry Nassar .
The Károlyis had exacting – and often damaging – standards. Gymnasts felt compelled to train and compete with broken bones and other injuries . They divested from the diverse body shapes which once filled the sport for a perpetual state of prepubescence, maintained by punishing overtraining and disordered eating: 1996 Olympic champion Dominique Moceanu has said the athletes were restricted to 900 calories per day.
Numerous former athletes – including Romanian team members Rodica Dunca, Emilia Eberle, and Ecaterina Szabo – claim they were subject to regular beatings for making mistakes ; and Joan Ryan’s headline-making 1995 book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes contained various allegations of verbal and psychological abuse.
As hundreds of women would later say in victim impact statements against Nassar, this environment would not only create the “ideal” gymnastic body, but would also create demure girls taught to never talk back.
In 2008, Moceanu spoke about the abuse she had faced as a young gymnast – in 2018 she told Deadspin this decision to speak out had ruined her career.
Read more: Nassar's abuse reflects more than 50 years of men's power over female athletes
Some of the Karolyis’ athletes have only praised them ; others, like Betty Okino in Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, have argued the medals justified the means.
But under their reign from the 1980s until Márta’s retirement in 2016, the US women’s gymnastics team became a superpower.
Competing until they break
Gymnastics is a sport requiring strength and endurance to withstand the G-forces of landings onto the floor, a narrow bar, or thin mat. But it had come to favour bodies possessing neither. As a result, young bodies were pushed to breaking point – with athletes disappearing from the sport in their mid-teens.
Within three years of commencing her senior career, Retton won two American Cups, two American Classics, the all-around competition at the Olympics, and retired.
Within two years, Okino had won two National Championship medals, three at World Championships, contributed to the first American Olympic team victory in 1992, and retired.
In 2016, Laurie Hernandez made her senior debut, winning the City of Jesolo Trophy in Italy, gold for the team at the Pacific Rim Championships, four medals at the US Nationals, and a gold and a silver at the Olympics. She hasn’t competed since.
Countless others followed the same trajectory.
It remains a sport of youth. Olympic gold medallist Jordyn Wieber joined the elite level of the sport at 11, and at 13 she became the second youngest American Cup champion ever ; her fellow 2012 gold Olympian, Kyla Ross was 12 when she beat more seasoned future teammates Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney at the US Classic.
Biles bucked the trend from the beginning. When she was 13, she placed 44th in the pre-elite national championships.
In 2013, when they were both 15, Katelyn Ohashi won gold at the American Cup and Biles won silver. It would be Ohashi’s last elite competition.
It was also the last time anyone would ever beat Biles at the all-around event.
At 19-years-old at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she was already considered old for the sport. She collected five medals – four of them gold.
It was a performance of a lifetime.
A new mould of gymnast
Watching Biles is the opposite to watching Comăneci.
Like the Romanian, she stands under five feet at 142 centimetres - diminutive when compared to many other athletes.
However, Biles has something the 1976 champion did not - explosive strength. She is, as Deadspin describes her , a “power gymnast” who “racked up difficulty on beam using tumbling skills instead of dance elements”.
Comăneci was a consummate performer, but frequently displayed a sense of apprehension, as though liable to snap from a bad landing: a body not built to withstand the force demanded of it.
But Biles competes with the muscle mass and power of male athletes, performing with toned quads, pectorals, and triceps. Her skills defy gravity , going beyond what was thought to be possible in the sport.
Frequently possessing so much energy she bounces out of bounds even after a long pass, she gives a feeling of boundless possibility.
In gymnastics, a new skill becomes named after the first athlete to perform it at an intentional competition. “The Biles” on floor is two flips and half a twist, in a laid-out position, backwards.
At the 2019 World Championships, we will likely have the Biles II: three twists and two flips. Watching footage of this pre-championships, you get the sense she needs to add at least another twist.
But she is not only a revelation in her difficult skills. Her candour - playfulness, jazzy artistry, and irresistible entertainment value – is refreshing, a departure from the strait-laced discipline viewers had become accustomed to, freely incorporating Latin-inspired beats and choreography.
The racism Biles has faced is often disguised as critiques not of her, but of her athleticism and performance. In 2013 David Ciaralli, the Italian Gymnastics Federation’s spokesperson, wrote on Facebook :
the Code of Points is opening chances for coloured people (known to be more powerful) and penalising the typical Eastern European elegance, which, when gymnastics was more artistic and less acrobatic, allowed Russia and Romania to dominate the field.
As recent as this past August, former US National coordinator Valeri Liukin said :
In the Code of Points, difficulty is very valued now. Of course, this suits African Americans. They’re very explosive – look at the NBA, who’s playing and jumping there?
Showing the difficulty
The child prodigies of the sport once telegraphed an air of effortlessness: a confidence and ease that presented tumbling across an inches-wide bar as little more than frivolity in the playground.
But as Biles constantly pushes higher difficulty, she also performs with the gravitas of effort. Despite her ability to turn an exhausting tumbling pass and still be left with energy to burn, she exudes difficulty.
After close to a decade in the training cycle of elite gymnastics – a lengthy tenure in a world of quick rises and falls – her body is likely growing tired from repetitive pounding, regardless of deft pacing.
But there’s another difference to Biles that has become more pronounced with the passing of time: her personality.
Just as the sport was previously a place for girls’ bodies, the athletes were expected be softly spoken with childlike politeness.
But Biles is brave and outspoken.
When Mary Bono was appointed CEO of USA gymnastics in 2018, she lasted three days after Biles publicly called her out for racism against black athletes.
In the wake of the Nassar sexual abuse scandal embroiling peak body USA Gymnastics, Biles has been a rare and consistent voice from a current elite athlete – vocal at competitions and on social media as more failings of accountability and athlete welfare emerge, wisened and hardened with each new revelation.
“You had one job,” she said in August.
You literally had one job and you couldn’t protect us, and it is just really sad because now every time I go to the doctor or training, I get worked on. I don’t want to get worked on, but my body hurts, I’m 22 and at the end of the day that’s my fifth rotation and I have to go to therapy.
In January 2018, as Nassar was being sentenced, Biles tweeted a statement about the trauma she associated with the Károlyi Ranch:
It breaks my heart even more to think that, as I work towards my dream of competing in Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused.
This would not eventuate. Thanks to Biles’ criticism, USA Gymnastics ended its nearly four-decade relationship with the Károlyi Ranch.
The end of an era
Biles has declared the 2020 Olympics will be her last meet.
“I feel like my body’s gone through a lot and it’s kind of just falling apart - not that you can actually tell but I really feel it a lot of the time,” she said in London last year.
If only measuring her career with the hardware she has collected, it would be remarkable - even now, as she goes into the preliminary rounds of the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, she stands with the most all-around titles in the history of the competition – and the most decorated American gymnast of all time .
But the way Biles has shaped the sport with her displays of strength - as an athlete and as an advocate – will arguably be the biggest mark she leaves on the sport.
Biles is a far cry from Comăneci and the diminutive gymnasts of the 70s. But the world of gymnastics is also changing around her.
Internationally, she’s far from the oldest current competitor - in recent years, smaller programs have nurtured more and more experienced athletes through their 20s, 30s, and beyond in the name of retaining top talent.
Among others, at the 2019 Championships Biles will compete against the Netherlands’ Sanne Wevers (aged 28), Germany’s Kim Bui (30), Brazil’s Jade Barbosa (28), and longtime fan-favourite Aliya Mustafina (25) from Russia, who declared “it was easier to give birth than to restore inbars” when recommencing training as a new mother in 2017.
Also competing will be Oksana Chusovitina – 44 years old, in her 17th World Championships, and still one of the best vaulters in the world.
Biles heads into the 2019 World Gymnastics Championships as firm favourite. She is 22, and at the peak of her powers. By this time next year, we will have seen her perform for the final time, undoubtedly having added a new clutch of medals to her collection and leaving more eponymous skills behind.
It’s difficult to predict who will follow in her footsteps, but she’ll leave behind a legacy to be felt for years to come: a trend of women staying in the sport longer, training smarter, and owning their strength as athletes, and as women.
Diversity in race and physique among elite gymnastics is becoming increasingly common. It’s a far cry from decades ago - the US didn’t have Luci Collins, its first African-American Olympic gymnast , until 1980.
For the spectators, the sport is perhaps now less about the artistry of gymnastics, and more about gymnastics as a sport of agility and strength.
Today, 43 years after Comăneci became the face of gymnastics, the sport has a new image.
- Friday essay
- Simone Biles
- Larry Nassar
- USA Gymnastics
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Gymnastics Doesn’t Know What to Do With Simone Biles’s Dominance
Her greatness is a form of resistance.
Simone Biles is the greatest athlete in the world today.
For me, this isn’t a debate. It’s a statement of fact. On Sunday, she won a record seventh United States gymnastics championship , continuing her jaw-dropping winning streak in every all-around competition she’s entered since 2013. The 24-year-old hasn’t lost in eight years. Typical gymnasts her age aren’t beating all their rivals by the big margins that, for Biles, have become routine.
Although Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl at age 43, he is no longer in his prime, and other Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks, including Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, are arguably more physically talented. Unlike the current greats in other sports, Biles has no peer. Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time and among the greatest athletes of all time, but her career is winding down, and Naomi Osaka is in position to unseat her as the face of women’s tennis. LeBron James won’t get a chance to defend the NBA title he won with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, because the Phoenix Suns eliminated his team in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
Meanwhile, Biles is likely headed to Tokyo next month, where she’ll have the opportunity to become the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the all-around competition in more than 50 years.
Read: The Olympic quote (that should be) heard ‘round the world
As impressive as her consistent dominance is, what Biles has come to mean to Black culture, to women, and especially to Black women is bigger than her all-out assault on the record books. Her excellence is an act of resistance. She is openly mocking expectations about what she should or shouldn’t do. Through her performances, she is creating a previously inconceivable new standard for her sport.
For this year’s U.S. championship, Biles wore leotards that featured a sequined goat . She has used the animal as her symbol since 2019 because she is the GOAT—as in “greatest of all time.” This, among other things, is what makes Biles special. She embraces that she is so extraordinary, that there is no one in the world like her, nor has there ever been. “It’s important to teach our female youth that it’s OK to say, ‘Yes, I am good at this,’ and you don’t hold back,” Biles told USA Today in 2019. “You only see the men doing it. And they’re praised for it, and the women are looked down upon for it. But I feel like it’s good (to do) because once you realize you’re confident and good at it, then you’re even better at what you do.”
At the Olympic gymnastic trials later this month, Biles is almost certain to qualify for the U.S. team. As the Tokyo Games draw closer, the question isn’t who will beat Biles, but whether she will be able to exceed her phenomenal 2016 Olympic performance in Rio de Janeiro, where she won four gold medals and a bronze.
The other question heading into Tokyo is whether Biles will again reset the standard when it comes to degree of difficulty. Even though Biles is the biggest star in gymnastics, the people who run the sport have stunted her brilliance on occasion simply because she is forcing them to rethink what’s possible. Their lack of imagination has become Biles’s problem.
Last month at the U.S. Classic in Indianapolis, Biles successfully completed the Yurchenko double pike on the vault, becoming the first woman in history to attempt this move in a competition. In February, Biles posted a video on Twitter of her doing the move in practice. The clip has been viewed more than 2.5 million times. Even then, skeptics asked whether the double pike was too dangerous . But anyone who has followed Biles’s career knows that limits aren’t really her thing.
The only other American to successfully execute the Yurchenko double pike in competition is David Sender, who was the U.S.’s all-around champion in 2008. After seeing Biles’s performance in Indianapolis, Sender told NBC Sports , “My first impression was, wow, I think that was better than when I did it.” The videos that circulated of her vaults—from training and warm-up sessions and from the competition itself—were such breathtaking displays of her talent that they damn near broke the internet. James and former f irst l ady Michelle Obama were among those left stunned by what they saw in the clips: Biles does a round-off onto the springboard, follows it with a back handspring onto the vault, and then finishes with two backflips.
The judges in Indianapolis were less impressed with Biles’s history-making move than the rest of the world was. They scored the move a 6.6—similar to scores that Biles received for far less difficult vaults during the competition. Observers of the sport have specu lated that the judges scored her Yurchenko double pike lower than its difficulty warranted because they don’t want other gymnasts risking their safety by copying Biles. When reporters asked her in Indianapolis why she would continue to do a move if the judges weren’t going to adequately reward her for it, Biles responded: “Because I can.”
Read: The Olympic guide to ladybragging
That inspirational spirit of defiance can be traced back to other Black athletes whose dominance and brilliance have forced sports to evolve. Wilt Chamberlain was such an unstoppable force that the NBA widened the free-throw lane—the painted area on the court where players on offense cannot linger—to keep him farther away from the basket. The NCAA banned dunking in 1967 because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was too good at it. (The ban was lifted in 1976.) In 1968, Major League Baseball lowered the height of the pitching mound from 15 inches to 10 inches because of Bob Gibson , who had a 1.12 ERA and won 15 straight games.
Biles has opened up a whole new level in her sport, even more than those men did in theirs. She now has four signature moves named after her , an achievement that can be earned only after a gymnast successfully performs the move at either the world championships or the Olympics. Biles is so far ahead of her competition that even when she’s not flawless, her performance is still more than enough for her to win convincingly. Her all-around score at the U.S. championship was a ridiculous 4.7 points better than runner-up Sunisa Lee’s. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, her then-teammate Aly Raisman joked that placing second to her felt like an accomplishment: “I knew that the gold was out of the question, so the silver for me genuinely feels like the gold medal,” Raisman said .
Next week, a seven-part documentary about Biles will air on Facebook’s video-on-demand service. The series is aptly titled Simone vs Herself . Because at this point in her career, she’s her only competition.
Simone Biles Biography Essay Example
Simone Biles is a fantastic gold medal winner, olympian. She started gymnastics when she was six at a daycare field trip. The instructors recommended she continued to practice gymnastics. So, that's what she did. In 2005 she started training with a coach Aimee Boorman at the North Houston gym in texas.. She trained with her for 12 years.
There are a lot of interesting facts about Simone biles. She is one of the shortest gymnasts to ever compete. She is 4’8, and only 103 pounds at the age of 24.
Simone Biles has done gymnastics for a while. To be exact, 18 years. The Olympics have been around for a while. But Simone Biles has been a very famous athlete there. Considering she was the first female to win three all around titles in a row. Simone Biles does different equipment. But he favorite is the floor routines. She even has a signature flip. Which is also her favorite flip. And that's called a double pike.
Simone biles competed in a lot of olympics. She wanted to start the Olympics at a younger age but couldn't. But as she couldn't participate, she went somewhere just for her. It was the junior olympics. But, as soon as she hit sixteen she went to the olympics.
She won a total of twenty five medals. Nineteen of the metals are gold. She was the first gymnast to win four gold medals in one game. She won her first medal in 2010 when she was only 13.
Simone Biles continues with gymnastics all her life. And is still currently doing it at the age of twenty four. Simone Biles is currently holding the record for best gymnast in the world. In the olympics she has a total of seven perfect tens. Simone biles highest score is currently 15.650. Simone Biles is good at different gymnastics equipment but her weakest one is uneven bars.
She had to learn a lot of skills to be in gymnastics such as balance, athleticism, strength, flexibility, coordination, and many more. While doing gymnastics she had to make sure her arms, legs, abdominal muscles, shoulders, and back.
At a very young age, Simone was diagnosed with ADHD. She was not ashamed to tell that to anyone. She has taken medication since she was diagnosed.
Simone had a younger sister named Adria. She is only two years younger than simone. Her and her sister didn't have the best personal life. They were adopted by their grandparents in 2003. Their mother couldn't take care of them anymore because of a drug addiction that had been going on for years. They were born in Columbus, Ohio and moved, then grew up in Houston texas. Simone came out on the internet that she was one of the very few young women to survive being sexually abused. In 2018 Larry Nassar was sentenced to a life sentence in federal prison for multiple crime counts of sexual assault and child pornagrapgy.
Simone pays about 15,000 dollars a year for training. And knowing she has done gymnastics for about 19 years. That's a lot of money she has put into her hard work. Simone even said you have to have at least 7-8 years of practicing before joining the olympics.y
She felt a potentially dangerous condition called the twisties. This is where gymnasts feel a disconnect between their mind and body while twisting through the air. And someone that helped her through it was her boyfriend.
Her boyfriend is a NFL star Jonathan Owens, who played football safety. They met by seeing him and thinking he was cute so she DM’d him. And then she realized he was in the Houston area. So they started chatting back and forth a little bit and met up about a week or two later. Even though Simone and Jonathan met in march 2020. Neither of them posted about each other until August 2020. Simone and Jonathan are about two years apart in age. Jonathan and Simone live together in spring texas. They have four german shepherds with them as well. Jonathan is a big supporter of Simone and her career.
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ESSAY: SIMONE BILES: A PHENOMENAL (GOAT) REALITY
by Jeff Maisey | Jul 15, 2021 | Horton , News , News & Views
By John L. Horton
We have just witnessed Simone Biles winning her spot on the United States Gymnastics Team, June 25-26, in St. Louis, Missouri. Biles’ two-day total score of 118.098 was more than two points ahead of runner-up, Sunisa Lee. What an all-time, awesome, generational athlete and world-class gymnast. Biles is truly in a “class by herself.”
We are truly blessed to witness probably the “Greatest Gymnast Of All-Time,” second to none. Of course, Biles will represent America in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. What a forthcoming treat for us and the world.
Life has never been easy for Simon Biles. Simon Arianne Biles was born March 14, 1997, in Columbus, Ohio, the third of four siblings. Her birth mother, Shanon Biles was unable to care for Simon or her other siblings. Eventually, Simone was officially adopted by her maternal grandfather, Ron Biles and her maternal step-grandmother, Nellie C. Biles, in 2003.
Biles first tried gymnastics at age 6. Later, Biles began her elite career at age 14, on July 1, 2011, at the American Classic in Houston, Texas. Over the years, Biles has experienced many “ups and downs.” She has survived physical, emotional, psychological and mental hardships. For example, Biles revealed on Twitter (January 18, 2018) that she is a survivor of sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar, former Team USA Gymnastics doctor. Somewhat earlier, Biles was cleared of doping to enhance performance by World Anti Doping Agency, after revealing publically that she had applied for and received a prescription for Ritalin use during competitions, Therapeutic Use Exemption, in September 2016.
Notwithstanding these obstacles, barriers and challenges, Biles has persevered and become the successful woman and iconic athlete that she is today. In summary, Biles has a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals. Biles is the most decorated American gymnast ever. And, she is widely considered to be one of the greatest gymnast of all time. Biles is the gymnast with the most World medals (25), and most World gold medals (19). Additionally, she is the female gymnast with the most World all-around titles (5).
Biles’ record is “excellence par none.” Her skill set is considered almost super human. For example, Biles has four gymnastic skills name after her, an honor reserved for the first competitor to execute a “new” move in a major international competition. Also, Biles has promised to deliver a gravity-defying feat in the Tokyo Olympics that only male gymnasts have done successfully.
Additionally, Biles is world renown for “five signature moves”: (1) Biles (Floor : Double layout, with a half twist); (2) Biles II (Floor: Triple-double, with triple twisting-double back-flip); (3) Biles (Vault: round-off, back handspring, half turn, stretched somersault with two twists); (4) Biles (Beam; Double twisting, double back-flip dismount); (5) Yurchenko Double Pike: Round-off back handspring, double flip in pike position).
For me, this makes Biles’ “story” even more compelling and inspiring. Just think of all the personal barriers and societal obstacles, she has had to overcome…and achieve it all… Accordingly, I offer my “Ode to Simon Biles”:
AN ODE TO SIMONE BILES: WORLD CHAMPION GYMNAST
You made it look like fun.
You performed incredibly before everyone.
You passed the ultimate athletic test.
You became champion of the very best.
You stood magnificently before the world.
You shone as our “new” Olympic Girl.
You mastered every twist and twirl.
You were our beautiful Black Pearl.
You overcame hardships alone the way.
You practiced hard each and every day.
You achieved with smiles, style and sway.
You turned your work into amazing play.
— John L. Horton
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Simone Biles and the Weight of Perfection
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
Leer en español
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, Cecile and Laurent Landi. 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.
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.”