Meet Simone Biles, who is about to turn Olympic gymnastics upside down
By Liz Clarke
The Washington Post|
Jul 04, 2016 | 10:34 AM
The soaring height is the first thing you notice, followed by the power. How can a 4-foot-9 sprite launch herself skyward with such amplitude and explosion, as if jet-propelled?
Then it's the dazzling smile as she flips, twists and spins over the vault, across the balance beam, around the uneven bars and from one corner of the floor to the next.
Simone Biles' gymnastics simply don't look like anyone else's.
Biles competes with a joy and abandon that has been lacking in women's gymnastics in recent years. All too often, grim-faced pony-tailed youngsters clench their jaws, furrow their brows and inhale an ocean's worth of air before hurtling into rigorous tumbling passes. Their feats may be acrobatically stunning, but the strain of pulling them off is palpable.
Biles, by contrast, exudes utter delight, competing as if the four-inch-wide balance beam is the sidewalk in front of her house, the vault and uneven bars mere elements of her backyard swing-set and the mat a magic carpet for high-flying fun.
Since 2013, no rival has come close to the marks she has earned en route to three consecutive world all-around championships and, last week, her fourth national title in a row at the P&G Championships in St. Louis, won with a career-high score (125.000) that was nearly four points ahead of nearest competitor Aly Raisman (121.100).
In the middle of her floor exercise, Biles spied 2008 Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson in the stands, winked at her and kept tumbling. An Internet video of NBC's footage of the routine, a technical and artistic tour de force set to a sassy salsa beat, was viewed more than 11 million times in just the first few days.
"You run out of adjectives when you are talking about Simone Biles," former gymnast-turned-analyst Tim Daggett said on the broadcast.
That's a mere fraction of the attention the 19-year-old Biles is sure to draw at the Rio Olympics, where the gymnast who most ably melds athleticism and artistry - qualities often at odds in the sport - could win five gold medals.
She's the prohibitive favorite for the coveted all-around. She's expected to lead an uncommonly strong U.S. squad to the prestigious team title. And barring a rare misstep, she'll be untouchable on vault, floor and beam, given the degree of difficulty of her routines.
Meanwhile, as her longtime coach, Aimee Boorman, walks a tightrope of keeping her Olympian-in-waiting in peak form yet encased in what she calls "bubble-wrap mode," Biles has weekly chores to keep her grounded. Among them: feeding her four German shepherds, taking her turn doing the supper dishes and cleaning her room each week. Any spare time will be spent indulging her Netflix addiction, listening to Justin Bieber, shopping with friends at Woodlands Mall and daydreaming about one day meeting her crush, Zac Efron.
"The most remarkable thing about my sister is how normal she is," said Adam Biles, 30, one of two brothers. "Actually, that's probably the most remarkable thing about our family. We don't know what famous people are supposed to do, act like or what we are expected to be. So when you see Simone out there competing on the floor, and she's happy and smiling and making little colorful comments and remarks, that's genuinely her."
- - -
The sporting world has a Texas heat wave to thank for Biles' brilliant career.
She was just 6 and headed to a field trip to a ranch with her day-care class when scorching heat forced a change of plan. The children were taken to a local gymnastics club instead, and Biles was transfixed.
She always had loved bouncing on furniture in the house, so much so that her mother, Nellie, had grown weary of harping that the sofa and chairs weren't a playground.
Gymnastics was the ideal solution.
It wasn't long before young Biles caught Boorman's eye. Biles was on the floor, carefully eyeing older gymnasts, with her arms extended straight down so that her rear end hovered off the ground, with her legs extended in front of her. Suddenly, without prompting, she inverted her legs, slipped them through her arms and formed a plank, just for fun.
"That's not normal!" recalled Boorman, who was struck by the little girl's musculature. "I remember clearly walking past her and thinking, 'I've got to look at this kid again.' "
Biles's chance visit to the gym wasn't the only serendipitous turning point in her young life. Her grandparents' act of love was another.
Her birth mother, who struggled with drug and alcohol dependency, was unable to care for her eight children, so for a time, four came to live with Ron Biles, Simone's paternal grandfather and an air-traffic controller, and his wife, Nellie, a former nurse.
After a failed attempt to reunite the children with their mother in Columbus, Ohio, the Bileses adopted the two younger children, Simone, then 5, and Adria, who was 3. Another relative adopted the elder two.
By then, the Bileses' own sons, Adam and Ronald, were nearing college age, so the empty-nest phase of their married life was put on hold while the family of four became six. The night after the adoption papers were signed, Simone paused on the staircase on her way upstairs to bed, turned to Nellie and asked, "Ham-maw?" which is how she said "Grandma," unable to pronounce the letter G. "Is it okay if I call you 'Mom?' "
"You sure can," Nellie replied, who recalled it as "a very big day."
"We did this as a family," she said, "and it was the best decision that we made."
Biles proved a quick study in the gym. She could watch older girls do a skill and copy it with ease. She had uncanny "air sense," Boorman said, which is the awareness of where her body is while flipping. Her compact body seemed purpose-built for gymnastics. Her boldness made her an ambitious pupil. And the more she was around elite gymnasts - the girls with Olympic aspirations whom she met at periodic national training camps - the more she evolved from acrobat to artist.
"I would just chuck my body and hope that I landed the skills," Biles said of herself as a young gymnast. "But they were so clean and precise in everything they did, so I wanted to be like all the other girls."
The first crisis point in her development came at 14, as middle school neared its end. Biles was competing on a national level and eager to progress to the elite ranks. To do so, she would need to train up to 32 hours a week and travel to more competitions, which would make attending public high school impossible.
That forced a choice between home-schooling to give her the freedom to make gymnastics her top priority or joining her friends at the local high school, which would mean giving up on her dreams of reaching the elite ranks.
She insisted she could do both, begging Ron and Nellie to convince the school to make an exception. They tried without success.
Tears and temper tantrums followed, as Biles wrestled with the decision.
"I told her, 'Whatever choice you make, I will support you,' " Nellie recalls, "'But you have to make that decision; it cannot be me because this is really a change in your life.' "
To 14-year-old Simone, the choice was between having a social life and having none.
"All my friends went" to public school, she explained. "The football games, just being a normal kid - I don't think anyone really wants to be home-schooled by themselves for four years."
But once she chose it, she didn't waver.
Boorman raised her skills along with Simone's. She knew when to prod her young charge, when to back off and when to surprise her with play days to avoid burnout. If there was a worry, it was that Biles was too hard on herself, turning hyper-critical as major competitions neared.
"There were weeks when I couldn't remember a day that I didn't cry," she said.
Anything triggered it. She'd think of her dogs and cry; she'd miss a handstand on bars and cry. So she tried wearing eye makeup to practice as incentive to keep from crying. It didn't work.
Nellie suggested meditation and breathing exercises. Then, with a bit a prodding, she convinced Simone to see a sports psychologist, to learn how to manage the turbulent emotions of adolescence and her extreme expectations of herself.
"The self-confidence was what really bothered me," Nellie recalls. "Regardless of how she performed, she never thought she could measure up to her peers because her peers were her idols. She didn't think she was good enough. It was hard to get through to her that you are just as good."
Winning the 2013 world all-around title as a virtual unknown on the global stage, and repeating in 2014, should have put self-doubt to rest. Instead, Biles was edgy entering the 2015 world championships in Glasgow, Scotland, and angry afterward that she didn't perform at her best, despite winning a third gold.
"Everyone was crowning me the three-time world champion before we had even started, and that stressed me out," Biles explained.
Said Boorman: "Since she does like to make people happy, she felt like it was her responsibility to achieve that goal [winning gold] for them, even though it wasn't necessarily her goal."
- - -
The routines Biles has prepared for the Rio Olympics are so much more difficult than other gymnasts', particularly on the floor, that, so long as she delivers, anything less than gold might be a mathematical shock. Under the sport's scoring system, each gymnast starts with a particular score based on the degree of difficulty of the skills they'll perform. Deductions are then taken for imperfections spotted by judges. A separate mark for execution is added to that. To catch Biles, a gymnast would have to be near flawless and count on Biles to falter.
That's not likely, as she thrives under the spotlight, now armed with techniques for managing her nerves. And her confidence ought to be sky-high. She hasn't won a medal that's any color but gold in the all-around at world or U.S. championships since 2013.
No gymnast gets the amplitude she gets on her flips. Few can even attempt the "Biles" - the signature move that's named for her, in which she does a double lay-out flip, with her body fully extended, and adds a half-twist before a blind landing.
Her dismount on the beam is a gravity-defying feat to behold. And Biles holds more in reserve - skills with extra flips and twists that she'll perform at her gym when she's feeling especially daring but doesn't use to compete because the risk vs. reward is too great.
Biles's gym just north of Houston, World Champions Centre, is quite literally that - owned by Ron and Nellie Biles, who built it from the ground up as their retirement venture, consulting with architects on its family-friendly design. It's a 56,000-square-foot, light-filled and color-splashed oasis for gymnasts of all ages and abilities, as well as their parents and siblings. The Bileses made sure to include the amenities they would have liked during the years they took turns watching Biles practice and compete in countless gyms around the country and world. There's an observation room above the gym floor for adults, with Wi-Fi and comfortable seating. There's a cafe; dance and taekwondo studios for siblings who aren't interested in gymnastics but need to stay busy; classrooms for use by families who home-school their children.
Best of all, from Simone's perspective, the main gym is big enough for all the gymnasts: boys and girls, even pre-K toddlers, who get stickers for pointing their toes and form hand-holding "trains" to march from one tumbling station to another.
It's not exactly high school, but the gym offers a social fabric of its own.
Last summer, when Simone earned her diploma, Nellie asked whether she felt she had made the right decision in choosing home-schooling.
"I can't believe that question," Biles said, shocked. Then she turned serious.
"Well, Mom," she said, as Nellie recalls, "I have lost so much. By giving up public school, I lost a lot of friends because we don't have the same interests. I don't do this 'hanging out,' whatever that is. I've never gone to someone's party, so I don't know what they do there. And I've never gone to a homecoming; never a prom.