Simone Biles is dynamite dressed in a glittery gymnastics leotard.
She’s an athlete and innovator, a champion who makes her performances seem effortless. She throws off the restraints of gravity when she whirls through her powerful backflips and nimble triple twists on floor exercise, hinting at the active kid who loved to bounce on the trampoline in her Texas backyard, but she maintains her toe-pointing precision while she navigates the four-foot-high, four-inch-wide balance beam.
She is rarely satisfied, never complacent, always pushing the boundaries of what was considered possible until she came along and rewrote the record books. (Gymnastics officials have named four skills after her, the honor given to those who invent and successfully perform a move in competition.)
Biles, 22, became America’s most decorated gymnast — male or female — in 2019 when she won her 24th and 25th medals at the world championships. Reaching that pinnacle is remarkable enough; that she did it while competing in two fewer events than are open to male gymnasts gives perspective to her extraordinary combination of strength, skill and athleticism.
“It feels amazing. It’s an honor,” she said during a visit to Los Angeles a few months ago. “I remember being young and watching Serena [Williams] and watching all these other great athletes break records and make history and you’re like, ‘I wonder if I could do that one day.’ And now I did, and I don’t know what to think.”
Biles, who won four gold medals and one bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics, hasn’t lost an all-around competition since 2013. She took a break after Rio but returned with routines that brim with unprecedented difficulty.
“After 2016, I felt like I was done. I had pushed my boundaries and my limits to the absolute max,” she says. “Then I came back and I’m still pushing them.”
Biles was born in Columbus, Ohio, to an alcohol- and drug-addicted mother, Shanon. She and her siblings were in foster care until she and her younger sister Adria were adopted by her maternal grandfather and his wife, Nellie, who raised them in Spring, Texas. Simone, always tiny but strong, was in daycare one day when a class trip to a farm was canceled because of bad weather. Instead, the kids went to a tumbling gym — and that became a life-changing moment. Her tumbling skills were apparent immediately, and she was invited to take classes.
“My parents weren’t very knowledgeable in the sport of gymnastics so they might not ever have enrolled me besides to keep me from flipping off the furniture, but I think that everything happens for a reason, and that’s how I ended up in gymnastics.”
Her favorite gymnasts were vault specialist Alicia Sacramone and Shawn Johnson, who had the same petite but powerful build she has. She saw few African Americans in the gym, though that didn’t register with her. “You don’t really see color in the sport whenever you’re young. But as you get a little bit older you start noticing it,” she says, adding that she remembers Gabby Douglas winning the individual all around at the 2012 Games. “I was super-excited because it was somebody who looked just like me, and I felt like if she could do it, I could do it one day.”
Biles quickly advanced to a Junior Olympic training program and was invited to the ranch of famed coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi when she was 14. She missed a place on the 2011 national team by one spot, and she decided to commit to full-time training. She was working out at Bannon’s Gymnastix in Houston in 2012 when the U.S. women’s Olympic team won the team gold medal. According to the book “Courage to Soar,” a fellow gymnast yelled to her, ‘That could be you, Simone!’” Four years later, it was.
But Biles kept a terrible secret for a long time. She came forward in 2018 to say she was among the hundreds of girls and women who were sexually abused by Larry Nassar, the longtime USA Gymnastics team physician. He’s now in jail after being sentenced to more than 100 years’ time on criminal sexual conduct charges.
Biles has been outspoken in her criticism of USA Gymnastics’ poor handling of Nassar’s conduct and believes the organization hasn’t done enough to ensure athletes’ safety.
“I went through a whirlwind of emotions during that time,” Biles says. “It’s not easy. We all deal with it differently but afterward I felt relieved and I felt like I could help other females or other athletes come out about their stories and not be afraid to … ” she adds before pausing to regain her composure. “Holding that to myself was really tough but once I spoke out about it, it was kind of like a weight off my shoulders.” She has said she underwent therapy and took anti-anxiety medication to help her heal from the abuse.
Biles applauds the efforts of other female athletes, such as the U.S. women’s soccer and hockey teams, to secure better pay and working conditions. “Most definitely, because I feel it can be hard to stand up for what you really believe in ... whenever you’re dominating, people want to shut you down, especially if you’re a female, for speaking out,” she says. “But I think it’s time to recognize them because they’re doing just as hard things as the males out there.