Most dominant athlete of 2018: Simone Biles
This was the year that the greatest gymnast of all time showed that not a damn thing will ever stand in her way
Daylight goes by fast in Doha. Jet lag clings, but not to the elite gymnasts who land days ahead and resist luscious naps. It’s October warm in the blockaded country of Qatar, and Simone Biles is somewhere in a state-of-the-art all-women’s wing of a hospital taking Aleve for a kidney stone. None of the usually prescribed pain meds will do, because this is the eve of the 2018 World Gymnastics Championships, and in a dozen hours Biles must once again reimagine principles of energetics, biomechanics, physics and physiology. And—hard mass of minerals passing through an organ or not—she must do it with a smile, and wave.
The worlds, outside of the Olympics, is the premier event in the sport of gymnastics. Qatar’s young emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (who owns the Paris Saint-Germain soccer club and is bringing the World Cup to his country in 2022), believes the event will swell Qatar’s role on the global stage. Within the 10-square-mile footprint of Doha’s Aspire Zone are athletic facilities and a mall called Villaggio, designed in the spirit of Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel & Casino. Brilliant but nonqualifying gymnasts mill about with drawstring backpacks hanging low. Biles is back, is the vibe, and like a tiny country that has seemingly infinite amounts of what the rest of a world requires to survive, truly, there’s no way around her.
The only thing greater than the legendary, genius, paradigm-shifting athletic status of Simone Biles is the degree to which so many don’t know or can’t understand what it is that she actually does. Even if you’ve seen Biles doing a split leap on a box of Special K, you likely don’t know the depth of her determination to dominate. Some of it is that Biles competes in an odd, ancient Greek sport based in “disciplined exercise” that conquering Romans militarized and people now barely pay attention to outside of Summer Olympic years. More of it is that it’s the American female gymnasts who excel. They also do the emotional work of heart-capturing and along with the WNBA suffer from a lack of the kind of sustained pop cultural uplift required for immortality. Plus—and this part comes with fireworks and a loud-ass girl band playing “Flawless”—accolades get blown off of black women like it makes wishes come true.
But Simone Arianne Biles is no dandelion. Not today. And in Qatar, far from her Texas homeland, it’s time for Biles—this former foster kid, this girl who looked 6 when she was 11, this athlete who at 4-foot-8 and 21 years old rules as breezily as Lisa Leslie—to break laws universal and customary, to hoist her sport up on her shoulders and fly. Defy gravity.
Later, Biles says “Yeah” when asked if she’s ever afraid of falling. Yeah.
What makes you continue?
“I just cling on,” she says plain as rice, “for dear life.”
“Yes,” Biles says with a shrug. Then a slow blink. Yes.
“They’re all babies,” Biles says. It’s a week after Doha, where Biles won five individual medals and led the U.S. women to a fourth straight world title—this time by the largest margin of victory since the scoring system was changed in 2006. The “babies” Biles is only kind of joking about are grown men playing professional football and basketball. The discussion is about the times when those athletes appear on the bench with ice packs on a knee or an elbow. She’s been lucky—no lasting injuries since the 2013 bone spur on her tibia and the shoulder thing in 2014. But she hurls herself even harder now. Twists seem even tighter. Surely she must have moments of swelling or—
“You do it after practice,” Biles says over snacks near Houston’s Galleria mall. “Can you imagine if, after my beam routine, I’ve got some ice on me? Like, come on [smiles]. Get over yourself.”
She can afford to say it. Much in the way that Serena transfuses blood and sauce into tennis, the way Tiger is golf even when he’s damn near dead, Biles, with every double-lay-half-out, continues to bring gymnastics to its highest glory, even as it proffers the lightest of protections for its women athletes. There is no way, after a 711-day hiatus since winning five medals in Rio, that Biles should be this excellent, again, already. She only returned to elite competition in July, in her birthplace of Columbus, Ohio, at the GK U.S. Classic. But while there was a step out of bounds on floor, an unclean landing on vault, a fall on bars, there were also three gold medals.
A month later, at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Boston, her presence delivered gymnastics its largest television audience, excluding Olympic years, since 2007. The horrific sexual abuse of athletes by former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar had surfaced while Biles was on furlough. The world digested testimony as Biles and so many others processed trauma. The athletes had been told to feel grateful for Nassar as he “treated” them, internally, without gloves, and gave them Olympic pins. This was a systematic failure to safeguard child athletes. U.S. gymnastics was in a state of chaos.
“It’s kind of scary because I don’t want them to be completely dependent on me for the sport to continue,” Biles said to espnW when asked about the stress of having to now more or less save the sport. “It’s not fair to me, because I can’t carry the whole gymnastics world.”
She did just that, though, with her return from sabbatical. She leapt from a toe shattered in five pieces. She swept all five of the golds at nationals. Not since Dominique Dawes in 1994 had an American woman achieved such a sweep. And here too Simone pushed the margin: Her two-day nationals score of 119.850 was the largest measure of conquest in any of her title performances. Shawn Johnson East, the 2008 Olympic balance beam gold medalist, laughed with amazement watching Biles at work. “It shouldn’t be possible,” she said.
It is, though. And this is Biles the Sequel, Biles after a long and deserved rest, Biles who could have retired after Rio to long applause and with highlight reels to rival Bryant, Beckham (Odell and David) and LeBron.
“I got my first assignment from the United States at the age of 15,” Biles says. She has been in training since the age of 6, doing the work necessary to become the first woman to win four world all-around titles and the first U.S. woman to win five national all-around titles. This is Super Bowl stuff. This is brass-assed taking-all-comers tenacity. How did Cardi B debut? With You know where I’m at / You know where I be. Well, Biles be at the vault creating her own round-off followed by a half-turn onto the table and two twists off it. It’s called The Biles now (one of two moves officially named after her in the Code of Points), and when she does this vault, it seems her hands barely touch the apparatus itself.
Biles says her hands do touch it: “Mm-hmm. But it comes from the block. That’s why it’s so fast. It’s like the angle of your shoulders, as well as how far you’re going to get your feet over your head. That’s what helps your hands get off.” This is the living math that it takes to be the GOAT.
The CV is relentless, its language full of words like in history and world record and medals medals medals. She whom Biles has not deaded is in danger, as she has gone about systematically obliterating the claims to greatness her current competitors might manage and is snatching records from past heroes like it’s light work. But it’s not light work.
It’s #simonethings. Biles says that sometimes, though, she just wants to be Simone, without all the medals. “It doesn’t matter to me,” Biles says with the grace of the sincere. “Everybody’s equal. Your accomplishments don’t make necessarily who you are. Yes, I have all these Olympic medals and stuff, but once I go out into the world, I’m a regular person. I do everything everybody else does. I fill up my own gas. I pay rent. I have to do all these things. So [the medals don’t] make me any better than anybody else. I’m just the best in my sport at what I do that day.” But no matter how sparkly her leotard, she’s a killer as stone cold as David Ortiz or Robert Horry ever was. She creates each time she competes. Plus, Biles will run the score up on you with a red cheer bow on a ponytail pulled higher than J-Lo’s.
The perfect 10 is dead. In 2006, the Switzerland-based International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) revamped its terms and conditions. Gymnasts now receive a D-score, up to 10, for the difficulty of their program, and an E-score, also up to 10, based on how well that program is executed. The two scores are totaled, but no one gets close to 20. The 20 is theoretical, and that’s a language Biles speaks fluently.
She just isn’t into finite ideas of excellence. “I always was like, ‘Let me do more,’” Biles says in Houston. “If [a coach] said, ‘One flip,’ I said, ‘Can I do two?’ ‘No, you’re not ready for two.’ ‘Fine.’ ‘Do a half-twist.’ ‘Why can’t I do a full twist?’ I was always striving for the next.”
Her routines are so difficult that her missteps don’t matter; at worlds, Biles sat in her vault landing, then stepped off the beam to gasps. And as far as she’s concerned, her moves are not that teachable. “When it comes to certain skills,” she says, “ones that I’ve done, I can teach. But other ones? I don’t know. Some of the girls ask, ‘Help me with a double.’ I can talk you through the basic steps, but they’re like, ‘Well, why can’t I make it?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ They’re like, ‘How do you add another twist?’ I’m like, ‘You just do it. It’s easy.’”
Easy? Jordan probably can’t tell you how he hit The Shot in 1989 either, even if he wanted to. Speaking about her 1976 perfect 10, Nadia Comaneci said, “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do. This is normal.’” Is that what they all think? That feats of greatness are normal, that Arthur Ashe beating Tom Okker in 1968 is a regular day? Pele for six at age 17 in his first World Cup? Billie Jean King taking down ol’ Bobby Whatshisname 6-4, 6-3, 6-3?
Ask her what a coach might have said when instructing her how to do a twist, or a double, for the very first time and Biles says, “Nothing that made sense. I had to feel it for myself.”
So who gives a flying FIG about the fine print when Simone Biles is flipping across the mat through her other “Biles” move—a double layout with a half twist and a blind landing. A blind landing is when a gymnast performs a skill and doesn’t see the ground before he or she lands. The trust Biles has in herself and her training is complete. Theoretical 20s and medals are the currency of her sport, but Biles is outside of it, like the U.S. Department of the Treasury.
More than getting money, she’s literally making the money: “Simone doesn’t require a lot of run into her tumbling skills,” Biles’ former coach Aimee Boorman told The New York Times in 2016, “so she can fit a longer pass onto the floor than a lot of athletes.” A longer pass equals more elements completed, which equals a higher level of difficulty submitted and executed. Boorman also said that what some gymnasts take years to learn—a new skill of any kind—Biles can learn in three days. That’s 24 hours, because Simone tends to train eight hours a day.
“I’m surprised that she added more difficulty already,” Tom Forster told espnW recently. He’s a high-performance team coordinator for the U.S. women’s national team. “Usually [a returning Olympian] is holding on to what they had, and she’s eclipsed that and is doing far more. If this was another sport, like football or basketball, it would be in every paper. It’s really unbelievable.”
It’s totally believable that it’s going unnoticed because Simone’s a woman, she’s black and it’s gymnastics, a sport in which, historically, authenticity and aggression are eschewed for pageant waves. What is beautiful to believe is how hard Biles goes at what she fears.
“I was afraid of the bars,” she says. “Still to this day, I’m a little bit afraid of it. But I have no choice but to do it.”
She has a choice, every day. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah.”
In Doha, it’s clear how bizarrely uneven the uneven bars are. From the cheap seats it’s also not hard to see which athletes might be “black” or “of color” by how much chalk is visible on their legs. Biles pats chalk. Blows excess with way less drama than LeBron or Kevin Garnett ever has.
She hops on, and already she’s so much better on bars than she was in Rio, where she failed to qualify into the finals. Her body relaxed and minutely Amazonian, her palms protected by a sliver of white leather and a dowel, she wins silver. “I trained harder,” she says later, exasperated.
OK, wait. Trained how? “A lot more basics, and my coach spotted me a lot more. I was on bars for longer. I had to actually focus more on what I was doing, rather than, ‘Oh, I suck at bars, I’m just going to get through it.’ A lot of drills, a lot of preparations, a lot of repetitions.” A lot of I’m not going to have a weakest event.
Biles’ uneven bars dismount is now the most difficult uneven bars dismount in the world. Watch as she refuses to follow the typical narrative of mild team girl who wins big, plateaus politely and bows out. Watch as she pushes the boundaries of “artistic”—so often code for white, and lithe—in artistic gymnastics. Watch as Biles deeply captures hearts with her brilliantly funny, brave and irritatingly detached personality. Watch this brown girl in these unruly and terrifying times as she continues to disrupt everything.
I didn’t have many fears as a kid.
Slam a girl’s life upside-down when she’s in her preschool years. Let there be little to no stability when she’s just starting to become who she’s going to be. Give babygirl parents with addiction and in absentia struggles. Put her before the age of 5 into foster care. And watch. Watch as she smiles and she somersaults and as she wins when it would be excused if she never got to the Games.
“In foster care,” says Biles, “me and my brother [Tevin] would always try to do backflips and front flips. We had a trampoline, but we weren’t allowed to jump on it because of the foster care rules.” Adult Simone says there were “liability issues” with regard to the trampoline. “Because,” she says, “it was just the kids that come in and out of foster homes.” How might a child process the word or the idea of “liability”? Lie. Ability. Lie. No. You can’t.
Biles was born at Ohio State University hospital in March 1997, when women’s artistic gymnastics was all Romania and Russia. Simone’s biological mother, Shanon, consumed by drugs and alcohol, gave up her four children to the state of Ohio by 2001. Simone’s father, Kelvin Clemons, out of the picture, was apparently dealing with addiction issues as well. “So instead of jumping on the trampoline,” says Biles, “we’d flip off the swing.”
When it looked like Simone and her siblings were going to be placed up for adoption, Simone’s grandfather Ron Biles and his wife, Nellie, stepped up. Simone and younger sister Adria were formally adopted in 2003. Simone’s two older siblings, Tevin and Ashley, went to live with Ron’s sister elsewhere in Ohio. All good. There are models—it takes a village—for all of this mild fresh princessness. But watch young Simone as what psychologist and prodigy expert Ellen Winner calls the “rage to master” kicks in. It’s an enhanced capacity for self-directed learning, or an unusually intense need to understand. The gifted have it early. Like, by the age of 6.
On a day too hot for an amusement park known as the Oil Ranch, Biles visited Bannon’s Gymnastix with her day care class because it had air conditioning. “How Bannon’s was set up,” says Biles, “was that front gym was the rec kids. Bring your kid, and parents go upstairs to watch. The back half of the gym was teams. Drop off your kid, and then [parents] leave, because [the kid is] there for four hours or more.” Simone began tumbling and flipping, imitating what she saw. She was noticed, sent home with a flyer, and soon Biles was a team girl.
Shanon didn’t see Simone again until she was 12. By this time, Biles was excelling on the junior gymnastics circuit. “I was so young when everything happened,” she says. “It’s not like [my biological mother] was a huge part of my life. As bad as that is, it just is what it is.”
Years later, during the Rio Olympics, the seams of old kin decisions stretched to breaking. Her biological mother spoke to her via grainy TMZ video: “I know it happened. I was struggling back then. I’m sober. I’m here and I love you! [My] daddy didn’t have to throw me under the bus. Go Team USA, and I’ll talk to you and see you when I can!”
“I do call at holidays,” Biles says. “‘Hey, Shanon, how are you?’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘Happy Easter.’ ‘Merry Christmas.’ Whatever, but that’s it.”
Biles has been through therapy, mostly for a 2013 crisis in confidence, a period in which her idols became her rivals. “Some of those sessions helped me to not feel guilty that I don’t care,” she says. “A part of me feels guilty sometimes because she’s biological mom. She had you … but she also lost all parental rights and did a lot of bad things. So why should I care? A part of me cares. I wish she wouldn’t have gone down the path she did with her life—not for me but for herself.”
Biles has called her grandfather and step-grandmother Mom and Dad since very near the adoption date. She appears via Instagram close to her siblings. Adam Biles manages Simone and her parents’ gym, the massive and popular World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas. Simone introduced her oldest brother, Ron Jr., to his fiancée.
They all vacation together, most recently in Cabo San Lucas, where Simone’s boyfriend, retired elite gymnast Stacey Ervin, 25, went along. “Both gymnasts,” Biles says. “That helped, and we both live the same lifestyle, being in the gym all day long, getting school on the side … competing and representing for the United States. … That was normal for us.” They fell in love during her hiatus from competition, and the couple charms Biles’ 3.4 million Instagram followers from the surf to the cabana. Ervin reminds one of a young Dwayne Johnson and is in fact a part of WWE’s NXT platform. “I have parents,” Biles says. “Have family, have friends. There’s no missing gap that I’d need [my biological mom] to fill for me.”
Her voice doesn’t quiver when she says it, just as Biles’ knees don’t quiver on that 4-inch wooden beam, a surface that has been called one of the most unforgiving in all of sport. Had Simone Biles not been rescued, had she never seen the trampoline, had the rescue not gone well, had a particular day in Texas been slightly less warm, had she been a little taller, had she not been given the flyer, had there not been funds to send her to the gym, had she not air sense, or good sense, or her exact life, would she still have been a contender, let alone among the greatest athletes the world has ever known? Biles was a contender from the day she was born.
She had to be.
At 12, right around the time biological mom Shanon started floating back through, Simone was invited to the USA Gymnastics national team training center at the 2,000-acre Karolyi Ranch in Walker County, Texas. “At that age,” says Simone, “you’re already doing what most 13-year-olds and most gymnasts can never do. You’ve been pushed beyond your limits. So you’re already the best in the country. It’s not just like any football player, it’s more like if they’re trying to go to the NFL. That’s basically what we’re being put through, at 13.”
And she hated it. “I didn’t want to go back to camp after I went. I declined [the second invitation].” Simone thought there would be marshmallow-roasting and zip lines she could jump on. “You hear ‘camp,’ it’s, ‘Oh my god, campfires, I’m going to have fun.’ No, it’s like a working camp. Get your mind right, your body right. By the last day, I was basically like, ‘This isn’t for me.’” (The Karolyis have been accused of beating and scratching young athletes, of withholding food and water, and of aiding and abetting Larry Nassar.)
So. On Jan. 15, 2018, Biles tweets out her statement about having been abused by Nassar. Three days later, USA Gymnastics announces that it is dropping the Karolyi Ranch as a training facility. Biles also used her social strength when USA Gymnastics interim president and former California congresswoman Mary Bono tweeted a photo of herself blotting out the Nike swoosh on a pair of golf shoes, joining a fad of Nike owners upset with the apparel company for endorsing Colin Kaepernick. Biles, who is also sponsored by Nike, tweeted, “Don’t worry, it’s not like we needed a smarter usa gymnastics president, or any sponsors or anything.” Three days later, former gymnast Bono, who had been in her new job four days, resigned.
You’ve watched that Nadia Comaneci performance I’m sure, where she got the perfect score?
Never seen it.
It’s easy to forget that in 2013, at 16, Biles shocked the world. Biles finished the world championships in Antwerp with four medals. Afterward, in an interview, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito said, “I told [teammate Vanny Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too.”
Cool, cool. People sometimes say unfortunate racially tinged racially charged racially divisive racial things. There are the tweeted apologies, the doubled-down Facebookery, the silent rising above or the contagious clapback. The platforms change, but we’ve all been doing this since Jim Thorpe Wilma Rudolph Jesse Owens Zina Garrison Jackie Robinson Arthur Ashe Serena Williams Venus Williams Debi Thomas Tiger Woods LeBron James, and these are the beats of American and global sport. Rise above, yeah yeah, with emphasis. That’s what the blacks do—dig in that dignity drawer and get suited up right for a slow and quiet fight. That’s the script.
Except no. That’s a script.
It’s fair to wonder: If Ferlito felt comfortable enough to publicly spew that rancidity, how passive-aggressive mean-girl might the atmosphere have been when the cameras weren’t on? Biles did not look like she was stressing. It’s the black girl’s rule of thumb. Do all of the things. Don’t break down. Do not cry. Train and dance and act and get there early stay late perform with a stone in your kidney be more than an athlete explain your humanity deal with people who try to take you off your game and your very life by utilizing racism. Win and keep winning and winning and goddamn it keep winning how else will they know that she has been here. A champion. Not fearless. But unafraid to cling on for dear life. Simone will defy all of the gymnastics narratives—length of career, race of participants, definitions of “artistic,” definitions of an athlete. To quote an artist Biles has on her photo shoot playlist via a Frank Ocean Tyler, the Creator song: Biles is already home. She won Doha, she’ll be in Stuttgart for worlds in 2019, and in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics too, but Simone is in the Hall already. If Andy were alive, Simone would be a Warhol already.
And after the Tokyo Summer Games, she’s done.
“I’ll retire [then],” she says. “It’s just too much on my body.”
No Copenhagen Worlds in 2021 and definitely no Games of the XXXIII Olympiad—Paris 2024. “Mm-mm,” she says, shaking her head slowly. No. “It’s not that easy.”
Look at her, please, one more time: She’s up there. On vault, on beam, on those sadistic uneven bars, on floor, headed into a blazing tumbling pass, Biles is about to get her flip on.
Exactly what are you thinking, in that moment?
What does that mean, “nothing”?
“Don’t die,” says the girl with air in her middle name. Don’t. Die.