The day before the women’s gymnastics team final, a Twitter user suggested Simone Biles and her coach Aimee Boorman were their sport’s equivalent to Walter Payton and Mike Ditka.
“Sounds about right,” Payton’s son, Jarrett, chimed in on Twitter.
Never mind that the Chicago-born Boorman doesn’t smoke cigars, has never thrown a wad of chewing gun at a spectator and is the antithesis of abrasive. She loved Payton’s affirmation.
She has also grown rather fond of these Olympic Games, where her student has picked up golds in team, all-around and vault. Monday, she took home the bronze in the balance beam.
Boorman has built a successful partnership with Biles partially upon the philosophy that there’s more to life than gymnastics.
Her instructions to the 19-year-old Biles here have been to compete for herself, to focus on the personal joy competition brings and not the weighty expectations of an entire country. That advice has proved beneficial for Biles, whom Boorman has coached for more than a decade.
Biles still has one more event — the floor exercise — on Tuesday. Boorman’s role in Biles’ life is central to the teen’s story.
“She’s like a second mom to me,” Biles said. “I have been with her since I was 7 years old and we’ve done this whole entire journey together. So it’s very cool we could start and end the same way.”
When I first saw her, I was like, ‘Wow, this kid has something.’ But what it was and how far she could go with it, I had no idea.
Raised by a single mother in Chicago, Boorman — then Aimee Banghart — started her gymnastics career at age 6 with classes at the park district and then a gymnastics academy. She began coaching at the gym when she was 13 as a way to make money to help cover her own training costs.
She attended one of the city’s selective enrollment high schools, because of its strong gymnastics team, excelling on the floor exercise and winning a city championship her freshman year. She continued to coach youth programs throughout high school, while her own competitive career drew to a close after graduation.
Boorman enrolled at Northern Illinois University in 1991 and put her coaching duties on hold as she pursued a degree in sports business. After her freshman year, she wanted to be back in the gym and took a job teaching gymnastics about 10 hours a week.
“I just missed it so much,” Boorman said. “It was what I loved to do more than anything.”
Boorman talked frequently about her passion for coaching with her sorority sisters, telling them she believed that someday she could take a student to the sport’s pinnacle.
“We told her it was good to have a goal,” college friend JoEllen Gregie said, laughing. “I guess we were right.”
In 1995, Boorman joined her college roommate on a trip to Houston, where her friend had a job interview scheduled. Boorman figured she might as well line up a few interviews there too. She landed a coaching job and never moved back to Illinois.
A decade later, Biles caught Boorman’s eye as she flipped around the Houston-area gym where Boorman was coaching. Biles — who had started gymnastic lessons after taking a daycare field trip to the gym when she was 6 — could do amazing, powerful things in the air, but she couldn’t stick the landings and would end up bouncing 15 feet across the room.
“When I first saw her, I was like, ‘Wow, this kid has something.’ But what it was and how far she could go with it, I had no idea,” Boorman said.
As a little girl, Biles couldn’t stay on the beam and struggled with the uneven bars because her hands were so small. She always vaulted well, but at her first competition she made back-to-back blunders on the apparatus and got a 0.0 from the judges.
But the pair kept working and Biles began to climb through the ranks. Boorman had never coached an elite athlete before, so the two figured it out together and created a path uniquely their own.
Boorman, for example, insisted Biles have a life outside the gym. She didn’t monitor her diet. She encouraged her to spend time with friends.
It’s an approach most elite-level coaches would consider detrimental to their careers and reputations. Boorman knew this. She also knew that skeptics would say it’s easy to be an unconventional teacher when a rare talent like Simone Biles is the student.
“But maybe we’ve lost other potentially elite athletes because we pushed them too far, too fast,” she said.
Martha Karolyi, the old-school U.S. women’s national team coordinator, saw how it worked for Boorman and Biles and couldn’t ignore the results.
Under Boorman’s guidance, Biles has won more world championships than any other female gymnast in history. Biles is also the first woman to win three straight all-around titles and the first gymnast to earn 10 gold medals at the world championships.
It’s unclear what the future holds for either Boorman or Biles. Boorman, who coaches other gymnasts, says Biles has talked about going to college and taking a break to do all the fun things that come along with being the women’s all-around champion.
“I just want her to love life,” Boorman said. “That’s it. Whatever she wants to do, whatever she wants to become, I’m always going to be there for her.”
But knowing that these Games could be Biles’ last major international competition, Boorman urged her to take a curtain call after winning the all-around title. Neither could recall the words they exchanged, but Boorman remembered urging Biles back to the mat before the coach’s tears got the best of her.
“I was glad the cameras were turning [toward Biles on the mat] because I was going to ugly cry,” Boorman said. “As coaches, this is our dream also. It’s my career, it’s my passion and it has been great being on this journey with her.”