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One of four children born of a drug-addicted mother, Simone Biles has already faced many challenges in her young life. From her difficult start in Columbus Ohio, Laura Wybrow fills in some of the gaps around the woman many believe will prove to be one of the most important athletes of all time.
As printed inside Issue No.1
When it comes to sporting superlatives, Simone Biles is world-class. At only 25, Biles is the most decorated female gymnast of all time with 32 Olympic and World Championship medals to her name – an astounding 19 of those gold. Biles has broken all the world records, has four gymnastic moves named after her, has spoken out against abuse, campaigns on child fostering, and mental health. Biles has even inspired a Subway sandwich – the appropriately named Vaultwich (tangy Baja steak with cheese, peppers and onions since you ask).
And Biles’ astonishing stats speak for themselves. At the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, Biles won individual gold medals in the all-around, vault, and floor, bronze on balance beam and gold as part of the United States team. In 2020, at the Tokyo Games, she won bronze on the balance beam and silver with the US team. She is a five-time World all-around champion, five-time World floor exercise champion, three-time World balance beam champion, two-time World vault champion, a seven-time United States national all-around champion and a member of the gold medal-winning American teams at four World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. She is also a three-time World silver medalist and a three-time World bronze medalist.
Hardly surprising then that Biles is now regularly spoken of as being the best female athlete ever – and that’s despite not stepping a toe on the mat since she announced her break from gymnastics almost a year ago.
Her decision to withdraw came after Biles pulled out of multiple events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to mental health issues. She later announced that she had experienced the ‘twisties’ – a phenomenon that causes gymnasts to lose spatial awareness when they are in the air which can lead to serious injury. While she had had episodes before when on vault or floor, Biles said it was the first time she had experienced the sensation on the uneven bars and balance beam.
From the start of the Covid-delayed 2020 Games, Biles suffered several mishaps, bouncing off the floor landing and stumbling heavily on a balance beam dismount. Nevertheless, Biles still qualified, but stated on Instagram that she was “[feeling] the weight of the world on [her] shoulders”, and that she felt affected by the pressure of the Olympics.
After another run of mistakes during the team finals, Biles walked out and although she quickly returned to the floor she later withdrew from the rest of the team competition, citing mental health issues. She later explained that she was inspired by tennis player Naomi Osaka, who had withdrawn from the French Open and Wimbledon Championships earlier in the year for similar reasons.
Biles was criticised in some quarters, particularly in the conservative media, and labelled a “quitter” who had deprived another athlete of the chance to compete. The U.S. team won the silver medal.
By the end of July, Biles had withdrawn from the individual event finals. She performed a scaled down routine in the beam final for which she won the bronze medal – a trophy Biles called her most meaningful because it symbolised her decision to focus on her mental health. “I say put mental health first… it’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself, because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are — rather than just battle through it,” she said at the time.
Biles was taunted with racist, sexist and transphobic comments in the Russian state-owned media and was called a drug cheat despite being cleared for taking medication for her ADHD.
More widely, multiple gymnasts came out in Biles’ defence and relayed their own stories of struggling with the twisties, and her decision was credited with starting a wider conversation about mental health in sports.
In an interview with Spanish Elle magazine in May, Biles said: “What we gymnasts do is not easy, otherwise anyone would do it. We are not just athletes, we are also humans, with emotions that we have to deal with behind closed doors.”
But Biles’ mistake, if it can be classed as such, is that she does make it look so easy. Her peerless performances are a form of magic. She climbs almost half a metre higher than her competitors and her pirouettes defy much more than the law of gravity. Her dancing is bewitching and her seemingly effortless spins, somersaults and jumps keep her audiences spellbound. But in reality her journey has been far from simple.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, on March 14, 1997, Biles was the third of four siblings. Her mother, Shanon Biles was a drug addict, resulting in Simone, her sisters Adria and Ashley, and her brother Tevin, being taken into foster care as Shanon struggled to care for them.
In 2000, Biles’ maternal grandfather, Ron Biles and his wife, Nellie, took his grandchildren to live with them in Houston, Texas. In 2003, he officially adopted Simone and Adria and his sister adopted Ashley and Tevin.
Biles has credited them with turning her life around. “My path to success began the day my grandfather, Ron, and his wife, Nellie, officially adopted me and my sister Adria,” Biles told Elle. “Dad, Mom, thank you for being brave and taking that leap of faith with us.”
After attending the local school, Biles decided in 2012 to be home-schooled so that she could dedicate more time to gymnastics, a sport she had started when she was six. She graduated and intended to go to the University of California after the 2016 Rio Games. However in 2015, Biles gave up her place at UCLA and announced that she was turning professional.
In a post on Twitter in 2018, Biles revealed that the former USA Gymnastics physician, Larry Nassar, had sexually assaulted her and she accused the governing body of allowing the abuse to occur, and of covering it up. “As I read more about the abuse other gymnasts had suffered, I realised that their stories matched mine,” Biles said in a recent interview. “I had to raise my voice and join them. Because we are survivors. We cannot remain silent in the face of aggression, we have to remain united. The system should not normalise these situations by looking the other way. We wore the medals, we did our part, they couldn’t do theirs?”
Biles has undeniably surpassed every goal she set herself as a young gymnast and she is now at a crossroads in her life. Next year she will wed her NFL star fiance, Jonathan Owens. She has signed a sponsorship deal with clothing brand, Athleta, and is about to star in her own Snapchat reality show. Social media is full of posts of Biles on various holidays with her fiance and their friends and at the moment gymnastics seems far from her mind.
As for the future, should we rule Biles out of Paris in 2024? Simply put, the force of nature that is Simone Biles, at just 142 cm tall and weighing 47 kilos, she has changed her sport for good. And history will record her as one of the most influential gymnasts – possibly athletes – of all time. So you wouldn’t bet on it, would you.
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