Biles has the potential to win six gold medals
It was when Simone Biles fell from the bar for the second time that Kyla Ross knew she was watching someone truly special.
Biles was 14 at the time, and unknown outside the closeted world of US gymnastics, but Ross – competing alongside her that day at the US junior championships – saw in her reaction to that set-back a sign that she was destined to be different.
"Simone had fallen twice in her routine, but she came off the bar so happy," Ross recalls. "Even though she had messed up twice she was still happy because she had caught one of her major release moves."
There is a hint of bemusement in Ross’s voice even now. Elite gymnastics is not known as an environment which tolerates even minor mistakes, something which particularly applied to the US regime, led at that time by national team coaches Martha and Bela Karolyi.
"I remember one of the first meets I competed with Simone, Martha told me: ‘Tell Simone not to look in the crowd, not to wave to people,’" Ross says. "I didn’t want to tell her that, it’s natural for her to be less serious, more light and bubbly. But being in the elite gymnastics world, especially with Martha, we were told not to smile too much, you’re supposed to be serious – or that was the culture we were taught."
That kind of tact was never going to fly for Biles. Aimee Boorman was Biles’s personal coach for 11 years, from age eight until Rio 2016, and she says it was always about finding the enjoyment that drove her. "If it hadn’t been fun she would have just quit," Boorman says. "It took Simone’s rise for people to see you can have this positive relationship with your coach and be successful."
Nineteen world titles, four Olympic golds and four gymnastics skills named in her honour is a measure of that success. Biles, 24, has transcended gymnastics and is the undoubted face of these Olympics, the closest thing the Games has to an international superstar in the post-Usain Bolt world.
Her rise is all the more remarkable given what she endured as a teenager. In 2015, the Karolyi’s emotionally abusive and injury-aggravating training practices were exposed, a regime which left athletes vulnerable to sexual abuse by national team doctor Larry Nassar at the squad’s secretive Texas ranch base.
Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years
Credit: THE GRAND RAPIDS PRESS
Nassar was ultimately sentenced to up to 175 years in prison in 2018 for repeatedly sexually assaulting at least 265 girls. Biles was one of them, and spoke in gut-wrenching detail about what she was subjected to in 2018, three years after allegations against Nassar first came to light.
She alleged the Karolyis underfed athletes, recalling how she and others would sneak into the ranch cafeteria in the middle of the night to steal food because they were so hungry. She has also been one of the most vocal and consistent critics of governing body USA Gymnastics for the pain their inaction caused all survivors.
Even when still on the periphery of the national team, she and Boorman did not try to fit the Karolyis’ mould, regardless of how that impacted on their standing in the national set-up.
"Most people think that we had special treatment, but we were not looked on with any favour at the beginning," Boorman says. "Simone had bad form, the national staff thought she was lazy and that I might be too combative."
Biles worked hard to prove them wrong and, after being snubbed for camp selection aged 13, won her next national meet. "That was without camp and by being healthy, mentally and physically," Boorman says. "I think that said a lot about being able to stand up for yourself."
Biles has not looked back since. When Sunisa Lee topped the standings at last month’s US Olympic Trials, it was the first time Biles had been beaten in an all-around competition since 2013 and she has six gold medals in her sights in Tokyo, the first of which should be in the team event, which begins in the small hours of Saturday morning.
Ross was the person who beat her eight years ago, and Biles recently said she would never have done so well if not for her team-mate pushing her standards at the start of her senior career. But really, Ross says, it is Biles who has pushed everyone else to grow.
Filmmaker Gotham Chopra has seen these leadership qualities in Biles since they met in October 2019, when he started shooting documentary series ‘Simone Biles vs Herself’.
Her training stood out, in particular. Biles’s safe place is her gym in Houston, owned by her parents Nellie and Ron. They adopted her as a child after she spent her infancy in foster care because her mother, Ron’s daughter, could not look after her and her siblings. They built the gym to create a space for kids like Biles to discover the sport and in between sets Chopra regularly spotted Biles helping young, newbie gymnasts.
"I have a 13-year-old son who plays basketball, and it’s as if he went to a gym and he was shooting around with Lebron James," Chopra says. "It just doesn’t happen. But here’s Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast in history, mentoring young girls. That’s really impressive."
The humility and support she shows extends to competition. When Britain’s Amy Tinkler, then 16, won a bronze medal on the floor in Rio and was nervously awaiting her turn on the podium, it was Biles – the gold medallist – who sought to reassure her. "I was super starstruck. But when she saw how stressed I was she said, ‘Chill, you’ve done all the hard work, enjoy this moment – we’ll look after you up there.’"
Tinkler was 'starstruck' by Biles
Credit: JULIAN SIMMONDS
For all of her ease at the top of the podium, Biles’s ability to be publicly vulnerable is part of her strength, Chopra says. In the lockdown months last year, she opened up about her abuse to Chopra during filming, peeling away the aura of invincibility she shows during competition.
"When you look at what she’s had to overcome, it’s not like other athletes," Chopra says. "It’s foster care, it’s sexual abuse, it’s institutional racism in her sport. Her level of ‘mental toughness’ or ‘resilience’ dwarfs pretty much everyone. There’s something about her that is unlike anyone else ever."
Tokyo will likely be Biles’s final Games, and gymnastics without her will see a seismic shift. For nearly a decade, gymnasts have gone into major competitions sweeping up leftover medals in floor, vault, beam and all-around. Gold was out of reach with Biles there, as Tinkler knows all too well.
"In the Rio floor final, my score came in and I went up to first place. I thought, that’s cool, but in five minutes Simone will have gone above me, which she did," Tinkler says laughing. "But I made sure my parents got a picture of the scoreboard."
Anyone looking at Biles’s record may think she has little left to achieve. But through an Olympic cycle that has seen a pandemic and the abuse reckoning within her sport, she has worked with coaches Laurent and Cecile Landi and been relentless in her quest to find new levels. At the US Classic in May she did, making history in becoming the first woman to successfully land a Yurchenko double pike vault in competition – a notoriously difficult and dangerous skill. She did so with an embellished goat – a nod to her ‘greatest of all time’ status – on the back of her leotard.
Biles is not the same gymnast Ross met, who was happy despite falling twice in her bars routine during juniors. She is a fierce competitor, with eyes only on a gold medal spree in Tokyo. But she has never become the robotic, unthinking gymnast those in power wanted her to be. There remains a thrill in what she does.
Her thought process while standing at the end of the vault runway, before doing the Yurchenko double pike, is an indication of that. "She’s doing something literally no one on the planet can do,” Chopra says. “The expectation was that she’s going to talk about power and confidence, but instead she told me: ‘I’m terrified every time. I envision the worst thing possible happening. But I still go.’”