The world wants everything from Simone Biles, and she keeps on giving it. She pulls off some of the most difficult skills in gymnastics better than any of her competitors, then adds unimaginable ones. She takes an improbable winning streak and extends it again. Competing at 24 years old and showing everyone that she’s stronger than she was at 19—her age when she near-swept the 2016 Olympics in Rio—she is a real-time refutation of the assumption that late adolescence spells the end of a top gymnast’s career.
When I spoke to Biles via Zoom in late May, she was at her home in Spring, Texas—briefly—in between competitions. At the U.S. Classic held in Indianapolis a few days earlier, her first time under the bright lights after a 19-month pandemic layoff, she debuted the hardest vault in the history of women’s gymnastics, a Yurchenko double pike that lit up social media. She had a day off as she traveled back to Texas and was in the gym again the next day to prepare for national championships a week later.
Biles says that gymnastics, and the laser focus that training and competition demand, gives her a chance to ignore everything else. “It gives me a break; it’s kind of my safe zone,” she says.
She’s had plenty to set aside. Over the past four years, Biles has pursued a comeback amid a devastating string of revelations about the abuse that she and other gymnasts were subjected to by former national team physician Larry Nassar.
She is the only self-identified Nassar survivor still competing at gymnastics’ highest level. Her dazzling performances bring reflected glory to her sport’s governing bodies, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee—organizations she blames for failing to protect her and her friends, and which she, along with approximately 200 other gymnasts, is suing.
She says that by staying in the sport, she is forcing people to continue to confront the scandal, the multiple institutional failures involved and her unresolved questions about how Nassar was able to prey on women and girls for decades.
On the verge of what was supposed to be a triumphant return at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, suddenly she found herself confined at home, with way too much time to think. With the Summer Games postponed and Biles unsure of when she’d be able to compete again, she started to have doubts. She says she thought about giving it all up. She didn’t want to keep going, least of all for USA Gymnastics. She didn’t know if she could make it another year, physically or mentally.
There have been other things on her mind, too. In a year when the nation erupted in protests after the murder of George Floyd, a different tragedy loomed over the Biles clan, an incident that resulted in murder charges against her brother, Tevin Biles-Thomas. Prosecutors had set out to prove that he was responsible for the shooting deaths of three men at a 2018 New Year’s Eve party in Cleveland. He maintained he was innocent.
When the siblings were in foster care together as young children, Tevin, who is almost three years older, had been Simone’s protector. He and an older sister were later adopted by a great-aunt in Ohio, and Simone started a new life in Texas, adopted with her younger sister by her maternal grandfather, Ron, and his wife, Nellie. Now Tevin was on trial, just as Simone was preparing to return to competition.
In mid-May, as Tevin’s trial got underway in Cleveland, Simone and her family would talk, often, about the proceedings. As the jury was deliberating, Simone headed to Indianapolis; Ron and Nellie went too, to watch her compete at the Indiana Convention Center while awaiting news of the verdict.
There, on a Saturday, she debuted a new floor routine and the Yurchenko double pike: a roundoff and back handspring onto the vault table, propelling herself into the air to complete two back somersaults, bent at the waist, knees straight. She felt confident enough about how she’d done to dip into
to watch the footage herself, sharing the clips with one of her coaches, Laurent Landi, and retweeting them in the process.
The following Monday, the judge presiding over Tevin’s case declared a mistrial. The jury had mistakenly received legal briefs discussing the extent to which he might have acted in self-defense, and the judge said the case would have to be retried in front of a new jury.
Nine days later, Biles was back in the arena for the U.S. national championships in Fort Worth, Texas. Her performance this time was no less astonishing. Holding back the Yurchenko double pike to preserve her ankles, she aced another difficult vault in her arsenal, the Cheng. She stuck a triple twisting-double somersault on the floor exercise, launching a fresh round of online clips that she enthusiastically shared again.
That she handily shatters new records while under crushing pressure may be the most extraordinary Simone Biles feat of all, one that reveals a psychic discipline she will summon again in Tokyo later this month: keeping her mind clear as she takes center stage, maintaining poise while her every move is scrutinized by judges and devoured by a global television audience before ricocheting across social media.
“You would never know, because we never discuss [Tevin’s case] outside the family,” Nellie Biles said in an interview while they were in Indianapolis. “Simone goes to work, I go to work, and you would never know that there’s something really mentally bothering us…, because we have our own jobs to do, and we go and we do those things.”
The classic gymnast origin story goes something like this: Parents of an active kid start to worry about broken furniture, or broken bones, if their child doesn’t find their way to a gym. This was part of Biles’s story, too—but there was more.
Born to a mother who struggled with addiction, Biles and her siblings were put into foster care when she was a toddler. She doesn’t talk much about why they were taken out of her birth mother’s care. She does remember being hungry.
She also recalls, in her 2016 autobiography, Courage to Soar, that she was in a foster home when she first did backflips from a swing set in the yard, in imitation of Tevin, who would shout, “You can fly!” as she tumbled onto the grass. There was a trampoline, too, but her foster family ruled it off-limits for a 3-year-old.
Then, for about a year the Biles siblings were fostered by Ron and Nellie in Spring, a suburb of Houston. That yard also had a trampoline, and this time Simone was free to bounce. Social workers attempted to reunite the children with their birth mother in Ohio. That failed, and Simone and her younger sister, Adria, returned to Texas, where they were ultimately adopted by Ron and Nellie, as Tevin and an older sister, Ashley, stayed in Ohio, adopted by Ron’s sister.
Ron and Nellie had raised two boys, who were now both in their teens. The couple were on the verge of becoming empty nesters, and starting all over again as parents to small children was not easy, Nellie Biles has said.
The year Simone’s adoption was finalized, she came home from a field trip to a gym that had been arranged by her daycare with a flyer inviting her to sign up for classes. It was Nellie who recalls saying, “Great, she can go flip somewhere else.”
The Bileses proudly note that in gymnastics, 6 years old is considered a late start. Although Simone showed lots of promise as she moved through the ranks, it wasn’t the kind that suggested her future would include garlands of Olympic medals. She wasn’t expecting that level of success herself. “All I wanted was a college scholarship,” she says.
It took four tries for her to qualify to compete at the elite level of gymnastics, her parents remember. In 2011, at 14, an age when many budding Olympic champions are being wildly hyped, she wasn’t even on the junior national team.
The delays did shield Biles during her youngest years from some of the most intense aspects of American competitive gymnastics. She trained less aggressively than her peers. Her coach, Aimee Boorman, who met Biles during her second week in the gym and worked with her through the 2016 Rio Olympics, had never coached an elite gymnast. The two remained largely off the radar of the national team coordinator, Martha Karolyi, who with her husband, Bela, had shaped dozens of young contenders at their Texas ranch, but were also accused of using training methods akin to abuse. (The Karolyis’ lawyer, David Berg, has defended the pair by pointing to the results they pushed their athletes to achieve.)
When her breakthrough finally came, in 2013, it happened very suddenly. Competing at the national championships, she won the all-around title. Her parents thought that might mean she would make the U.S. team for the upcoming world championships. Then she won the all-around title there too.
“I remember staying up late just reading stuff on the internet like crazy” after that win, Nellie Biles says. “I have never in my wildest dreams thought this was going to happen. And that’s when I realized this was different, because it was in newspapers in different languages…. I picked up newspapers I couldn’t even read but they had my daughter’s picture in them.”
And then it didn’t stop. On paper, the graph charting Biles’s success looks too linear to be real: Since 2013, she’s been the all-around champion at every competition she’s entered (along with winning a sizable haul of medals from individual apparatus events). With this streak, she’s broken one of gymnastics’ fundamental laws: turnover. At six of the seven Olympics before Rio, the reigning world champion had been felled by injury or an unexpected new rival or just bad luck. Winning three consecutive world all-around titles followed by the 2016 Olympic crown made as little sense to Biles as to anyone else.
“In 2016, I thought I’d hit the peak of my career, and I was like, How can I get any better than that? And so I was really nervous walking into the gym.”
“I wouldn’t say I thought ’13 was a fluke. But I was like, ‘Oh, whatever, I won; next year somebody else will be the winner.’ And then ’14 happened and I won, and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh; what is happening?’ And then ’15 happened, and I was like, ‘Who am I? This could be really good. I could make the Olympic team!’ ”
By 2015 she was a celebrity in the gymnastics world. She was also a young athlete heading into what would likely be her first and last Olympic Games. She had just signed with an agent and lined up an endorsement deal with
Still, it wasn’t clear what to expect when the rest of America turned its attention, as it does for two weeks every four years, to competitive gymnastics.
“They say it’s going to be crazy,” Ron Biles said in a 2015 interview. “But we don’t know.”
When her moment arrived, everything changed. Four gold medals at Rio, plus a bronze on the balance beam, turned Biles into a household name. She appeared on Dancing With the Stars and wrote an autobiography, which became a Lifetime movie.
To nobody’s surprise, she took time off from gymnastics. For Olympic medalists, the burnout is significant; the moment to seize other opportunities seems fleeting; the expectation that a gymnast’s performance will only decline with time is hard to ignore.
Every year, Nellie Biles had made all her children write out their goals. Simone’s were suddenly different. Where once she’d said “Olympic Games,” now she wrote (and did) “dive with sharks.” She moved into her own place, to the horror of Nellie, who thought it was way too soon for Simone to leave home.
And then she went back to gymnastics—not without trepidation.
“In 2016, I thought I’d hit the peak of my career, and I was like, ‘How can I get any better than that?’ ” Biles says. “And so I was really nervous walking into the gym,” consoling herself with the idea that 10 or 15 years later, she’d want to know she’d given it a shot.
When she came back, she picked new coaches. Cecile and Laurent Landi, a French-born couple who had trained many elite gymnasts in Texas, could have felt nervous too, faced with an impossible question: How do you coach a truly transcendent talent?
During their job interview, the Landis ventured detailed assessments of Biles’s current routines and pitched her on ways to update them. They also focused on Laurent’s specialty, the uneven bars, Biles’s least-favorite apparatus.
They brought Biles back to some gymnastics fundamentals. “She was young and she didn’t really need the technique; she had the power,” says Cecile Landi. To stay above everyone else—and maybe rise even higher—“she had to improve on her technique because that’s the only thing that’s going to keep you safe, especially when you get older.”
So, she did drill after drill after drill on skills that she’d learned years earlier. To keep things interesting, the Landis threw in skills that nobody had attempted in competition. The idea was that playing around with, say, a triple-twisting double somersault on the floor would make refining a double-twisting double somersault less rote.
What they found out: Biles could actually do the triple-double. And a double-double off a beam. And the Yurchenko double pike, which also started off as a training exercise.
Where Biles was outstanding before, she’s become otherworldly. Even a terrible day doesn’t block her way to the podium. Nor a kidney stone, an affliction she suffered during the 2018 world championships. She’s having a great time seeing how far she can take it.
“Now I can enjoy my gymnastics. It’s really up to me,” she says. “And that probably also comes along with how many titles I’ve won and everything I’ve established. It’s like, OK, well, the facts are on the paper. I feel like now I don’t have to prove anything to anybody…. I’m trying to level up.”
At her last appearance at a major international competition, the 2019 world championships, she took gold medals in the team, all-around, beam, floor and vault competitions, her greatest haul of titles yet. The next Olympics were coming, and Simone Biles was still peerless.
In 2018 and 2019, as Simone Biles was setting about the audacious task of coming back to gymnastics even better than she had been when she won her 2016 Olympic titles, it was also becoming clear that she had been one of the central victims in one of the worst abuse cases in the history of American sports—and that much of it had unfolded on the road to Rio.
Biles’s triumph in the summer of 2016 had come during the last few months of relative innocence for gymnastics, at least in the public eye. Reporters at the time (including me) were still writing about sparkles on leotards. Describing coaches as “demanding” or “tough” was the extent of the skepticism. As it turned out, U.S. gymnastics officials knew that period was about to come to a crashing end. But few others did.
In 2015, American coaches learned that three gymnasts later identified as Biles, Olympic team captain Aly Raisman and rising star Maggie Nichols had privately discussed concerns about treatments they had received from team doctor Larry Nassar. The matter was reported to the then-head of USA Gymnastics, and the organization conducted a five-week internal investigation before turning the matter over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As it languished there, Nassar was allowed to quietly retire from USA Gymnastics.
As part of the internal inquiry, Raisman and Nichols were interviewed by a private investigator retained by USA Gymnastics. Biles was not. Nor were her parents told about the situation. Her name wasn’t included in the information given to the FBI. Nobody who was aware of the matter, seemingly, wanted to find out if their supernova had been sexually assaulted while in their care.
Soon after the 2016 Olympics, the claims against Nassar became public. As he defended his medical technique, the gymnastics community was torn over his culpability. It eventually emerged that he had sexually assaulted hundreds of women and girls, including whole teams of elite gymnasts, under the guise of therapeutic procedures, over at least three decades.
When cable news covered his sentencing in January 2018, it brought a new wave of attention to his crimes, and the culture of American gymnastics that had enabled him to become such a prolific abuser. More top officials from USA Gymnastics departed; the rest of the board followed; sponsors fled.
And that same month, Biles told her parents, and then publicly acknowledged, that she was among the victims. Later that year, she became one of the gymnasts suing USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. For almost three years now, through almost all of her comeback, she has been suing them, with no obvious end in sight.
USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy in late 2018, a move that also forced a pause in efforts by the USOPC to strip it of its status as the sport’s governing body. The result is that after all this time, it is still in charge of organizing competitive gymnastics in the United States, including controlling who makes the world and Olympic teams.
As Biles executes ever-more-daring skills in which a misplaced step could cause her to break her neck, she continues to do so as a member of USA Gymnastics. It promotes her relentlessly; so does the USOPC. The affection is not mutual.
When the enormity of the Nassar scandal was first coming out, Cecile Landi says, she and Laurent had to adapt Biles’s training to account for the toll it was taking on her. “Nowadays, not so much,” she says. “She’s more able to put it aside.
“She talks to me a lot about how she’s tired of [USAG]. I keep telling her, ‘You know, you are not representing USAG; you are representing yourself and your country, and this is who you should worry about, and you don’t owe USAG anything,” Landi says. “But she’s more confident now that, ‘You know what, they screwed up and I’m not going to care what they have to say; I’m just going to do me.’ ”
In a judged sport, gymnasts felt that even a whisper about Nassar could put their careers at risk. Given Biles’s stature, she no longer has to hedge in interviews with qualifiers like “if I make the team.” She still loves gymnastics; she doesn’t need it as much as gymnastics needs her, a reality evident in the power she holds on social media.
“In 2018 I kind of realized, Wow, I’m one of the only remaining [Nassar] survivors in the sport. They can’t brush that under the rug, and they can’t stop talking about it.”
In January 2018, when she disclosed her abuse, she said she didn’t want to go back to the Karolyi Ranch—where Biles had attended monthly camps since she was named to the national team in 2012, and one of the places Nassar sexually assaulted athletes. Almost immediately, USA Gymnastics declared the team would never return.
Even that power only goes so far, though. Biles didn’t know that others knew she might have been abused and hadn’t said anything to her. And she still wonders about what else she doesn’t know, at the same time facing the fact that a reporter could ask her questions about any of it, even if she’s trying to focus on hurtling through the air. She’s clear about one thing: By competing, she continues to have a platform. And she will use it.
“In 2018 I kind of realized, ‘Wow, I’m one of the only remaining survivors in the sport,’ ” she says. “They can’t brush that under the rug, and they can’t stop talking about it.”
Biles has excoriated USA Gymnastics on the competition floor, with the then-spokeswoman of the organization standing beside her. “Did you guys really not like us that much that you couldn’t just do your job?” she said at the 2019 national championships, going on to cry. “You literally had one job, and you couldn’t protect us.” Soon afterward, she debuted the triple-double on the floor and double-double off the beam.
“I usually handle that on my own or in therapy and stuff like that, but I feel like it was just a lot of pent-up emotions. And sometimes that does happen…, a spark in me kind of goes off,” she says, before acknowledging her skill at compartmentalizing. “When I do gym, it’s gym, and if I have to talk about something else, then I try to separate the two.”
USA Gymnastics’ current president and chief executive,
Li Li Leung,
said, “We recognize how deeply we have broken the trust of our athletes and community, and are working hard to build that trust back. Everything we do now is aimed at creating a safe, inclusive, and positive culture for everyone who participates in our sport.” She added that she knew that that kind of change would not happen overnight, but that the organization would keep working toward it.
In the months leading up to summer 2020, Biles had been hanging in with her training grind—34 hours in the gym every week—despite the aches and the pressures. There was an even bigger reward waiting for her on the other side of the Tokyo Olympics. Biles had been asked to headline a gymnastics production, dubbed the Gold Over America Tour in a nod to the Greatest of All Time, or GOAT, honorific she had acquired.
The Gold Over America Tour starring Simone Biles was meant to be a triumph over USA Gymnastics. The post-Olympic tour had been a major fixation for the organization under its old leadership. This time, it would be held in Biles’s name, and she was excited. It would be fun. USA Gymnastics made clear it would not attempt to stage anything of its own.
The pandemic threatened to erase all that. Biles was shut out of the gym that her family opened in 2015 and still operates. She was social-distancing from her parents. Once her at-home assignments from the Landis were done, she got bored. The Olympics were off, at least until the summer of 2021. Biles wasn’t sure she would continue training.
Cecile Landi, suspecting she wasn’t done, suggested to Biles that she not make a snap decision. After about seven weeks, the gym reopened, and she eased back in. Having training partners there helped. Since the Landis came, other gymnasts at the Biles gym have qualified to the elite level—and other elite gymnasts seeking a new coaching environment have moved there. Younger athletes, Biles says, teach her about the latest social media apps and remind her of a healthier mentality, that “it’s just gymnastics.”
“[Jonathan] would say I slid into his DMs. I saw him and I was like, ‘Oh, he’s pretty cute, so I said hi.’ ”
It helped that the rest of her life was full, too. Over the winter, Biles had broken up with her longtime boyfriend, former gymnast Stacey Ervin Jr. It had become clear the two were at different points in their lives, she says. As the pandemic began, she started a new relationship with NFL player Jonathan Owens after spotting him online and sending a direct message.
“He would say I slid into his DMs. I saw him and I was like, ‘Oh, he’s pretty cute,’ so I said hi…and then I saw that he was in the Houston area, so we started chatting a little bit, and then we went to hang out a week or two later.”
After about three weeks of watching the two flirt, Biles’s sister Adria grabbed her phone while she and Owens were FaceTiming and asked if he was going to join a planned trip to a lake house. He came with his dog, an English bulldog, Zeus, who got on with Biles’s French bulldog, Lilo (Biles added Rambo, another French bulldog, to the mix during the pandemic). As fears of the virus eased and warmer weather came, the Bileses’ Sunday-evening dinners resumed, in person and outdoors. Owens was invited to join.
When the nation turned its attention to police violence and racial injustice last summer, the Biles family discussed it at home. Ron shared his perspective of what it had been like to grow up as a Black person in the 1950s and 1960s, his sense that these things had always been happening and the difference was that now it was being recorded, and his inability to comprehend how someone could kneel on another person’s neck until they were dead. All of it bothered Simone.
Biles says she’s embraced the idea that athletes deserve to be advocates. “We can have a voice for things that we believe in, rather than just focus on the court, focus in the gym. We’re human too.” She also knows that whenever the topic of race in America rears its head, the public will look to her, just as it looks to LeBron James or Serena Williams, to say something. And her parents know that while she is a grown-up and can make her own choices, she has a public image and she has to be careful.
This spring, for example, at an otherwise anodyne media summit for prospective members of the U.S. Olympic team, she said that she didn’t consider a protest during competition to be off-limits. Subsequently, she says, she decided she would probably save it for another time. “Everybody expects me to speak out, but I kind of do it whenever I’m ready, in a good mental place, because it is a lot at the end of the day, and it does spark a very big conversation,” she says.
On the topic of her brother’s murder trial and the pain it may have caused her and her family, she has kept her feelings almost entirely private. In early June, a new trial began. One week later, in a highly unusual procedural move, the judge—not the jury—granted a motion from Tevin Biles-Thomas’s lawyers to acquit him, on the grounds that there wasn’t enough evidence to sustain a conviction.
“Everybody expects me to speak out, but I kind of do it whenever I’m ready, in a good mental place, because it is a lot at the end of the day, and it does spark a very big conversation”
Biles was in the final week of preparations for Olympic team trials. “Out of respect for everyone involved, Simone is not ready to talk about it,” said her agent, Janey Miller. “There is a lot to process, and the entire situation is very challenging and incredibly complex. Her heart goes out to all involved.”
The idea that athletes have the freedom to speak or not speak runs through much of Biles’s thinking, whether the topic is her family or her business dealings. When she announced earlier this year that she would break with Nike and sign a new endorsement deal with
–owned athleisure brand Athleta, she went out of her way to avoid speaking negatively of her former sponsor, which has faced criticism for its treatment of female athletes and employees. She also pointedly emphasized what she was gaining. “Being older and moving forward and having this partnership with Athleta is just going to be better for me personally, and I just feel like it aligns better with what I’m trying to work towards,” she told The Wall Street Journal in April.
At Nike, Biles had become essentially another face among a crowded roster of athletes and had barely shown up in the company’s recent ads and marketing. Nike has said it wishes Biles well and that it will continue to champion, celebrate and evolve to support its female athletes.
As the face of Athleta, Biles is betting that she can do more than just sell leotards, the first prize offered to gymnastics champions. She can instead have her own performance-wear line to sell leggings, sweatshirts and jackets to millions of women and girls, as well as sponsorship for the tour, all while maintaining an activist platform, which she can decide how to deploy after the Games—assuming they go ahead.
Simone does know that she is to be among the competitors in Tokyo, and this time she also knows exactly what the Olympic buildup entails.
In late June she easily made the Olympic team, showing as she did the highs and lows of being Simone Biles.
On the opening night of trials, she brought back her double-double beam dismount for the first time since 2019, despite her conviction that its value had been lowballed by the International Gymnastics Federation, and had one of the most stellar scores in her comeback across all four apparatus.
On the second night, she stumbled throughout and fell from the balance beam. She was visibly distressed during the competition at performances that she considered subpar and which were bested on that night by Sunisa Lee; later, she told reporters, she had felt the weight of her own and others’ expectations too keenly, wondering how she could live up to what she had already done.
The fireworks and streamers happened anyway. Biles finished top overall. She was thrilled for training-mate Jordan Chiles, who confirmed her place on the squad behind Biles and Lee. Still holding her flowers, Biles smiled gamely in a photograph of the newly named team—posed around Leung, the chief executive of USA Gymnastics.
It was a broadcast reminder of the toll on Biles—and the possibility that even as a superhuman, she could be felled by something unprecedented, including the pandemic, which could cause some athletes to be barred from the Games even if they do go on.
Nellie Biles says that she doesn’t dwell on ideas such as the Games being canceled. “I’ve never woken up one day and said, ‘Well, what if it doesn’t happen?’ No. I can’t. And I don’t think she can either. You cannot train with this kind of passion and this kind of intensity with a ‘what if.’ There cannot be a ‘what if.’ If there’s a ‘what if,’ then she needs to do something else.”
Simone Biles doesn’t know what that something else looks like right now. But she thinks that whatever it is, and whoever she will be after gymnastics, she’ll be ready.
“I feel like for all these years I’ve kind of let gymnastics do the talking, and I’ve kind of stamped my position there,” she says. “So at the end of the day, I can say I’ve done it all, and more.”
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