The Difficulty of Being Simone Biles
She might be the best gymnast ever. But her hardest trick may have been tuning out issues of family and race
Periodically, the whump of sinew against gym equipment echoes through the cavernous World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas. High-octane pop music blasts from all sides.
“All right, let’s see if we can find the ground,” a coach yells, clapping as a young female gymnast readies herself to run. The gymnast sprints, flips and lands in a pit of foam cubes.
“Is that supposed to be a Biles?” he asks as she emerges. He shakes his head.
The “Biles” is a double flip with the legs straightened and a half twist thrown in at the end. The gymnast has to fly end over end and land facing the same direction she was running, as if deciding on the spur of the moment to trick out a sprint with some midair acrobatics.
Standing nearby, Simone Biles, 19, a four-time U.S. all-around champion and the first female gymnast ever to win three straight world titles, appears not to notice the attempt at the skill that carries her name. It’s an incredibly tough move. She’s the only one in the world who’s ever thrown it in competition.
It’s been a light practice day at the Biles’ family business in this suburb north of Houston—a 52,000-square-foot facility that resembles a mega- church, a house of praise for full extensions and improbable leg splits. On this May afternoon, the 4-foot-8 Biles, a hummingbird with muscles, is flitting, bouncing, checking social media and not yet exclusively focused on the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. There, starting with the first women’s gymnastics event on Aug. 7, she’ll be a threat to win five gold medals, become the most decorated American gymnast ever and solidify her position as an evolutionary step forward in gymkind—an order of magnitude ahead of her competition.
Biles “may be the most talented gymnast I’ve ever seen in my life,” Mary Lou Retton told the U.S. Olympics website teamusa.org. “And I don’t think she’s tapped into what she can really do.”
It turns out Biles did see that attempt to throw her eponymous move. “She said she was going to tuck it,” Biles says of the gymnast. “I was like, ‘There’s no such thing as a tucked Biles, but OK, go do it.’”
She doesn’t always show it, but Biles is always processing. Always paying attention to the spaces in which she moves. Flipping things in her head to try to come out on top. Like how she bends her mind to try to dodge the expectations that would consume her if she let them. “A successful Olympic experience for me would be giving it my 100 percent every time I go out and compete and doing the best routines that I can do for Team USA,” Biles says. “If that’s the best I can do that day, then I’m good with it.”
It’s a form of mental gymnastics that has served her well. Enabled her to normalize a family backstory that began with foster care. Allowed the first African-American world champion to say she never sees race.
Contortion defines the sport. And as with any flip and twist, the key is to stick the landing
But in Scotland, she almost fell on the beam. And for the first time ever, she landed out of bounds in her floor routine. “Everyone was like, ‘Oh, you have to three-peat, you have to do this,’” she says. “After every event, everyone was just like, ‘Is she going to do it?’ So after I finished floor and I saw my [winning] score, I was like, ‘OK, you guys have this stupid three-peat. There!’ It stressed me out so much.”
“She likes to make people happy,” says Aimee Boorman, who has been Biles’ coach since the gymnast started competing at age 7. “She felt like it was her responsibility to achieve that goal for them even though it wasn’t necessarily her goal. I had to talk her down and say, ‘You’re not responsible for their expectations. That’s not your burden to carry.’”
It was good preparation heading into Rio, Boorman says. This time, she knows what’s coming.
Though in a scoring system that rewards difficulty, Biles could probably fall off an apparatus and still be in the running for gold. Gymnasts score up to 10 points for execution, which gets added to an open-ended number of points for difficulty. A difficulty score over 6.0 on any event is good. Biles’ floor routine is a 6.9. Her beam is 6.8.
The scoring system changed after the 2004 Olympics, and the perfect 10 that critics said rewarded safe routines with minimum levels of difficulty was abolished. In her new book The End of the Perfect 10, author Dvora Meyers argues that the change has led, in part, to older, more athletic female gymnasts— and an era of U.S. supremacy. The American women’s team has won three world championships in the past five years and is the reigning Olympic champion. An American has won the individual all-around gold in the past three Olympics.
But even in the context of her country’s overall dominance, Biles represents a breakthrough for the sport. “All the girls are like, ‘Simone’s just in her own league,’” Aly Raisman, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and captain of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, told USA Today after the world competition last year. “Whoever gets second place, that’s the winner.”
The reason? Amplitude. Biles flies higher, twists faster, lands on her feet with more precision and authority than anyone around her. Lands her feet like she’s punctuating her own legend. I’m the baddest. FULL STOP.
Erinn Dooley, a former elite gymnast who coaches women’s gymnastics at the University of Maryland, says Biles’ effortless-looking power “makes everyone go ‘Aaah.’” Most gymnasts “have one or two amazing tumbling passes on floor exercises,” Dooley says. Biles has four. “It’s just unreal.” She beats the rest of the field by whole points.
After the first night’s competition at the national championship in St. Louis in June, Biles’ score of 62.90 placed her 2.45 points ahead of Raisman and reigning junior national champion Lauren Hernandez, who were then tied for second. “She does passes late in the routine that many guys can’t do in their opening tumbling run,” NBC commentator Tim Daggett, a 1984 gold medalist, said at the start of her floor exercise. The next night, she became the first woman in 42 years to win four straight national championships with a final score of 62.10 in the all-around, 1.45 points ahead of second-place Raisman.
Boorman remembers first seeing Biles’ remarkable physicality as a child. She was sitting on the floor “with her legs out in front of her,” Boorman says, “and she puts her hands at her sides, and she pulls her legs up through a plank onto her stomach. At 6. That’s not normal. And just her musculature in general.” She was waiting for her turn on the bars and couldn’t stand still. “Boing, boing, boing, boing, boing!” Then she saw Biles bounce from her bottom to her feet—on a mat with no spring. “That was just kinetic energy from her body,” Boorman says. “I was like, ‘Wow, this kid is something.’”
Biles also has a kind of preternatural “air sense,” Boorman says. It’s not something you can teach. “You know how some people have incredible balance? Well, imagine having balance without your feet on the ground while flipping and twisting and knowing exactly when you have to bring your feet down to the floor so that you don’t die.”
The constant threat of injury is what makes watching gymnastics such a throat-catch. Gymnasts are always one bobble, one twist, one slip away from a violent impact that could mean anything from points deductions to catastrophe.
Then there’s the inexorable corrosion of time: the thousands of repetitions, flip after flip, landing after landing, year after year. It’s a demanding sport, and by the time a gymnast gets to 18, her body is beat-up, Dooley says. Some have been at it since the age of 3, “and they have a hard time sticking through it and putting in above 30 hours a week” to train.
Still, Dooley calls the trend of older female gymnasts—Nadia Comaneci was 14 when she scored a string of perfect 10s at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal—a positive trend. Raisman is 22, and reigning Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas is 20. Both are expected to make this Olympic team. A shoulder injury caused Biles to sit out the start of the 2014 season, but she’s had no other serious injuries.
Advances in medicine, physical therapy and technology have helped prolong gymnasts’ careers, Dooley says. There are compression pants to help with blood flow and inflammation, for instance. There’s more awareness about nutrition. “Older gymnasts know what they need to do to heal their body, to eat correctly, to stay focused,” Dooley says. Maturity brings strengths.
Biles had fewer of those strengths in 2013, when she was brand-new to the world stage. That was the year her birth mother, Shanon Biles, the woman Simone and three of her siblings were taken from as young children, showed up to cheer her on.
IN MANY WAYS, the Biles family story resembles one of Simone’s championship routines: intricate, high- risk and, in the end, a thing of beauty.
Simone’s grandparents, Ron and Nellie, officially became her mom and dad when Simone was 6. They met while Nellie was in college in San Antonio and Ron was in the Air Force and raising daughter Shanon as a single father. Shanon eventually moved to Cleveland with her mother. Nellie became a nurse and used to co-own a chain of Texas nursing homes. Ron was an air traffic controller. (He’s now retired.) They married and had two sons.
When Shanon struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, her four children—Simone, born in Columbus, Ohio, was No. 3—were taken from her and placed in foster care. Simone’s oldest siblings went to live with Ron’s sister, while Simone and younger sister Adria were adopted by Nellie and Ron. (They still stay in touch with their older sister and brother.)
Simone used to do the talking for her little sister until she learned that she had a mother who wasn’t going anywhere and that she could relinquish that role. The Biles family got counseling to help them grow into their new roles. Nellie says she prayed to love her new daughters as much as she loved her boys. “I don’t know the exact date” it happened, she says, “but my heart just made room.”
Once Simone trusted that her feet were planted, she started to explore the space above her head. “I would just try to flip on the couch,” she says. She and Adria would jump from bed to bed. “My dad would always tell us, ‘I can hear you jumping up there.’”
After a canceled field trip landed Simone at a local gymnastics center instead, she brought home a flier urging kids to sign up for classes. Simone began the classes at 6, started competing the next year with Boorman as her coach and rapidly advanced through the junior competition levels. Mostly, Simone competed with herself. The family wrote down goals every year, and Simone’s never included world titles or the Olympics. She wanted to be on the cover of a gymnastics magazine.
As a rising ninth-grader, she had to decide how high she wanted to go in the sport. To advance to the elite level and be on that cover, she’d have to be homeschooled, Nellie told her. There would be no prom, no after-school activities, no hanging with classmates. The decision was hers. After a weekend of crying, she told her parents she would do it.
“I was just so lonely all the time,” Simone says. “I missed, like, all my friends at school and stuff. But I mean, in the end, it worked out.” Something had clicked, she says. “I decided that I wanted to be better. I didn’t just want to throw my skills, I wanted them to look good.”
When Nellie invited Shanon Biles to the Secret U.S. Classic outside Chicago three years ago, not everyone in the family agreed with the decision.
“Because her biological mother lived that close, I thought it was important for her to come and see Simone compete,” Nellie says. But the move distracted and confused Simone. People kept asking about the woman calling herself Simone’s mom. Simone fell during the competition.
Three months later, she won her first world title.
Shanon, who lives in Columbus and works as a home health aide, says she speaks to Simone briefly every few months “when I call her, when she calls.”
“I knew she was going to be somebody one day,” Shanon says proudly.
But Shanon is not going to Rio, she says. She’ll be posted up with popcorn in front of the television, watching like millions of others. She has two younger children, a 12-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl who play sports and “brag about her all the time.” Simone doesn’t know her younger siblings and hasn’t seen Shanon since that competition in 2013.
“We don’t need no drama, nothing to interfere with her performance. Everybody is in a good place,” Shanon says. “We’ve been through what we’ve been through, and life goes on. God is good, and he put her in this place for a reason.”
The start of May finds the Biles family preparing for its gym’s official grand opening. Adria, 17, also a gymnast, competes at the junior level, and older brother Adam is the gym’s general manager. A banner with a smiling photo of Simone and the Nike Swoosh adorns a wall. Gym equipment bears her signature, and there’s a line of Simone Biles leotards.
In 2014, when Boorman left the gym where she’d previously coached and where Biles got her start, Simone’s parents decided to build the World Champions Centre as a financial and community investment, and as a home gym for Simone. Ron Biles will say only that it cost north of $5 million and that loans helped with the financing. Simone, who also has an endorsement deal with the consumer-products giant P&G, Core Power and other companies, pays her own gym fees, according to the family.
Ron Biles is not an overly religious man, but perhaps their family story has been part of some master plan, he says. He shows me a Facebook post in which a friend wrote: “Your choices years ago literally impacted the history of gymnastics.”
Not everybody is happy about that.
IN 2013, AFTER Biles won a bronze medal on the balance beam at the world championship in Antwerp, Belgium, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito told an Italian interviewer, “I told [teammate Vanessa Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin black so then we can win too.” A spokesman for the Italian federation tried to clarify, saying “the current trend in gymnastics … is going toward a technique that opens up new chances to athletes of color, well-known for power, while penalizing the elegance typical of Eastern Europeans.” Both later apologized.
The history of African-Americans in gymnastics, according to teamusa.org, “is relatively short and recent.” The first black U.S. gymnasts, Ron Galimore and Luci Collins, were part of the 1980 Olympics team that boycotted the Moscow games. In 1991, Betty Okino became the first black gymnast to earn medals at a world championship—a team silver and bronze on the balance beam. The following year, she and Dominique Dawes became the first black gymnasts to win Olympic medals as part of the bronze- medal-winning U.S. all-around team. In 1996, Dawes became the first African-American woman to win a team gold medal in Olympic gymnastics and to win an individual Olympic medal, a bronze, in the floor exercise. Sixteen years later, Gabby Douglas became the first African-American woman to win all-around Olympic gold.
Douglas says she loves how gymnastics is “getting very broad. Because the sport is predominately a white sport, so I’m glad that I’m seeing more African-Americans out there.” She adds, “No matter what race you are, no matter what nationality you are, you always should pursue your dream.”
Ron Biles, who grew up in a Cleveland housing project, says some people call Simone “an inspiration for the African-American community. I’m not sure Simone sees it that way.”
Simone says race has never been an issue for her, or a problem, or something she has especially thought about. Asked if she’s happy to inspire other girls of color, she says she is, but “then again, to me, I feel like I’m just Simone.
“I never think of it as, ‘Oh, I’m the first African-American to win [the world championship],” Biles adds. “Everyone just shoves that in our heads. I never think, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I am the first this, I’m the first that.’ I just do my gymnastics because I like to have fun. I don’t bring race into it.”
When people tweeted about what the Italians said, at first she thought they made it up. “Normally, it’s not in her favor being black, at least not in the world that I live in,” Ron Biles told USA Today. Then she ignored the whole thing. The media tried to hype the controversy, Simone says, but she didn’t respond. Didn’t give it any head space.
“Fact is, she performed the best at that competition,” Nellie Biles says. “What should matter is the hard work you put in and the performance you put up.” She never raised her children to dwell on race.
In some ways, it’s an easy contortion. It can be difficult for young athletes in any sport to be up front about race, gender, sexuality. It’s hard enough to master the required athletic skills. They might not have the bandwidth or simply not be ready or willing to think about anything else. And when you talk to parents of other gymnasts and fans about Biles, about her racial or cultural significance, many of them say it matters little, if at all. It can feel like a deduction in form to even bring up the subject.
“It’s just amazing that she’s world champion,” says Maylene LeuBent, who makes the 40-mile trip from Houston Monday through Saturday so that her daughter, Mia, 12, can train at the Biles family gym. Though Mia is a brown girl, Simone’s race has nothing to do with her inspiration, LeuBent says. “We don’t have that lens,” she says. Gymnastics is “just hard work and motivation.”
For those unfamiliar with the sport, the abundance of black culture at a competition, juxtaposed with the absence of black faces, can be jarring.
At the Secret Classic competition at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut, in early June, the warm-up music blaring overhead is almost wholly performed by black artists. So are the viral dance moves the Dab and the Nae Nae, performed by a young audience that is overwhelmingly white. Biles and Douglas are two of the top three U.S. gymnasts—the third is Raisman—and all are warmly celebrated. They are also two of only three black female gymnasts people can name in a sport that’s been popular for decades.
The optics and history are clear. But there is an added layer of consideration that requires another kind of gymnastics. In a sport scored by a panel of judges and in which the Olympic team is decided by a three-person committee, there’s room for subjectivity, so you need every edge—and race is political, full of fault lines.
Christine Dzidrums, the author of Simone Biles: Superstar of Gymnastics, a young-adult book on gymnastics, points out that in figure skating the athletes are sometimes called “ladies.” “There’s a little bit of that that seeps over to gymnastics,” she says. And talking about race can seem decidedly unladylike; it’s tough to name even one outspoken gymnast. “The fear among the athletes is that if they get out of line a little too much, it would be reflected in their scores.” Especially with social media, Dzidrums says “they worry that one wrong word, one wrong sentence could maybe end their chances.”
It’s not just their performances. Look at how focused gymnasts are with costuming and ribbons, down to the number of crystals in their leotards. Everything hangs in the balance. The economic, historic and cultural realities of race are complicated, and focusing on tenths of points can feel so much more straightforward.
Biles has risen to the top in a gymnastics system in which whiteness is the default for success at every level. The gymnastics world says it doesn’t see race, but white is a race, and perhaps that’s what they’re not seeing.
Whether it’s the pressures of family, the contours of race or all the outsized Olympic expectations, Biles knows how to block everything out. She is the best in the world at keeping her balance and landing on her feet.
This story appears in the 2016 Body Issue, check out more on espn.com/bodyissue. Pick up a copy on newsstands starting July 8.