Simone Biles is the only female gymnast in history to win three consecutive world championships. But the teenager from Spring knows that her legacy all depends on Rio.
Early on a gray morning in April, dozens of elite athletes—rangy pole vaulters, wrestlers with bulbous ears, beach volleyball players with baked-in tans—hugged themselves for warmth on the windswept plaza outside the Today Show studio, in New York’s Rockefeller Center. In exactly a hundred days, they would march into Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium as part of the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics. But on this chilly morning, as they waited to appear on live television, the beaches of Brazil seemed a long way off.
“I guess this isn’t Rio,” joked a middle-aged spectator wearing a vest festooned with hundreds of commemorative pins from previous Olympics. Several of the athletes shot glares in his direction.
Meanwhile, the biggest stars from the most popular summer sports were standing apart from the other athletes on a sand volleyball court that had been set up for the occasion. Eleven-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte, the swimmer whose rivalry with Michael Phelps in the 2012 London Olympics electrified audiences, chatted with Gabby Douglas, the peppy gymnast who led the 2012 women’s gymnastics team, nicknamed the Fierce Five*, to gold.
Between Lochte and Douglas was a less recognizable figure, at least to most, a diminutive young woman whose head barely reached Lochte’s chest. “Do you know who Simone Biles is?” I asked the woman next to me. She had traveled up from New Jersey to support her niece, who was on the field hockey team.
“Who?” the woman replied.
“She’s a gymnast,” I said. “She’s won the last three world championships.”
If everything goes according to plan, soon the entire world will know the name of the four-foot-eight 19-year-old from Spring. Biles is already one of the most decorated American gymnasts of all time, male or female. She’s the only female gymnast in history to win the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships three years in a row. At the most recent Worlds, in Glasgow, Scotland, last fall, she won the all-around competition, awarded to the gymnast with the best total score across all four events, by more than a full point over the runner-up—the gymnastics equivalent of a total blowout. (That runner-up? Gabby Douglas.)
Gymnastics legend Mary Lou Retton has said that Biles “may be the most talented gymnast I’ve ever seen in my life.” Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics, is even more effusive, recently declaring, “She is as dominant as Michael Jordan was when he was on the top of his game. She is as dominant as LeBron James. She is as dominant as Tom Brady. She is as dominant as any athlete in any sport.”
Inside the world of gymnastics, Biles is a god. Outside that world, most people have never heard of her. That’s because gymnasts, like sprinters, swimmers, and high divers, receive major media attention only once every four years. Biles was fifteen during the London Olympics, a year too young to compete, which means she’ll be making her long-awaited Olympic debut next month. She’s already appearing in ads for NBC’s coverage of the Games, performing the samba with a gaggle of Carnival dancers, and is expected to be one of Rio’s breakout stars.
“I don’t fear what will happen, but you just get ahead of yourself, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish it would happen now,’ ” Biles told me a week before her Today Show appearance. We were sitting in a bland conference room somewhere within the 52,000-square-foot World Champions Centre, the aptly named megagym recently built by Biles’s parents, Ron and Nellie, in Spring. The dynamo gymnast had just finished a five-hour practice session and was wearing black athletic leggings and a tight, electric-blue workout shirt that accentuated her muscular shoulders. Her longtime coach, Aimee Boorman, sat beside her.
Biles knows that no matter how much she’s achieved, she won’t become a household name unless she’s able to overcome the so-called Olympic jinx. As she’s constantly reminded on social media, where she’s an active Tweeter and Instagrammer, only three reigning female world champions have gone on to win the Olympic title.
“That’s all the media cares about right now, whether I’m going to break some Olympic jinx that I’ve never even heard of,” Biles said, rolling her eyes. “It was never my deal to break that. But I guess I have to now, because you guys said I have to.”
For all her success, Biles has always struggled with expectations—from the media, from her fans, and, perhaps most of all, from herself. The pressure of elite competition has taken its psychological toll, causing Biles to suffer potentially career-ending mental blocks several times over the past few years. But with help from an expert in sports psychology, she has emerged stronger each time. Provided she makes the U.S. team—and disaster would have to strike for her not to—the Olympics will be her greatest test yet.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Biles has been working toward this moment since the day she took a day-care field trip to Bannon’s Gymnastix, at the age of six. As the story goes, Biles observed the gym’s students, then spontaneously began imitating their movements. She returned home with an information packet and a single, insistent demand: enroll me at the gym. (In the world of competitive gymnastics, Biles actually got a late start; parents who harbor Olympic dreams for their children are encouraged to put them in classes as soon as they can walk.)
Biles was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1997 to drug-addicted parents who struggled to care for their children. Biles and her three siblings were shuffled back and forth between their mother’s house and a foster home. (Biles’s father had abandoned her mother and was never present in his daughter’s life.) When I asked her what memories she has from those days, Biles recalled that one of the foster homes had a trampoline that she and her siblings weren’t allowed to play on.
When Biles was six, she and her younger sister, Adria, were adopted by their maternal grandfather, Ron, and his second wife, Nellie, who brought them to live in their house in Spring, a prosperous suburb of 55,000 people half an hour’s drive north of Houston. (The two older siblings were adopted by Ron’s sister.) At the time, the sisters called Ron and Nellie “Grandpa” and “Grandma,” but one day Nellie sat Simone and Adria down for a talk. “She said, ‘It’s up to you guys. If you want to, you can call us Mom and Dad,’ ” Simone remembered. “I went upstairs and tried practicing it in the mirror—‘Mom, Dad, Mom, Dad.’ Then I went downstairs, and she was in the kitchen. I looked up at her and I was like, ‘Mom?’ She said, ‘Yes!’ ”
When Biles came home from Bannon’s besotted with gymnastics, her parents knew better than to argue. “She’s always been headstrong,” said Nellie, a retired nurse. “When she makes up her mind, it’s, like, oh my gosh—the whole world could be upset and she’d still do it. My other kids would listen. Her, no. She makes her mind up and that’s it.” As a little kid, Biles hated eating meat. When her parents insisted, she took to surreptitiously stashing the cut-up pieces in her chair. “We were cleaning the chair one time, and we were like, ‘Look at all this stuff under here!’ ” said Ron. “ ‘Oh, Simone, so that’s how you finished so fast.’ ”
Biles started at Bannon’s in the beginners’ class, but as her talent became apparent, she quickly advanced. A year after enrolling, Biles was in the middle of a class when Aimee Boorman, a former competitive gymnast and one of the coaches at Bannon’s, walked by and took notice. Impressed by the tiny girl’s explosive power and “air sense”—a gymnast’s catlike ability to stay oriented while flying through the air—Boorman soon became Biles’s personal coach, a position she has held to this day.
“Simone was eight when I started coaching her,” said Boorman. “She was a little child, very immature.” During Biles’s early years in the gym, her parents had to travel frequently for business—her father installed air-traffic-control systems all over the country for the Federal Aviation Administration while her mother ran a chain of nursing homes spread across Texas—so Boorman became a surrogate mother.
“She’s known me forever, so I feel like she’s my second mom,” Biles told me. “I’ve stayed at her house when my parents were out of town, and I used to see her more than my parents.” Like most mother-daughter relationships, theirs wasn’t without friction. They argued over which skills to practice, how many hours Biles needed to spend in the gym, Boorman’s teaching techniques. “There was a lot of head butting,” Boorman recalled.
In 2010 Ron retired from the FAA. The timing was fortunate; Biles was beginning her push to join the junior national team, which required more time in the gym and more travel to meets across the country. It also meant giving up attending a normal high school. She began receiving personal tutoring in between her rigorous practice sessions.
Biles was first noticed by Martha Karolyi, the coordinator of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, at the 2011 American Classic, a competition held each spring at the Karolyi Ranch, a sprawling training complex surrounded by the Sam Houston National Forest, near Huntsville. The ranch, which is also the official training center of the women’s national team, was founded by Martha and her husband, Bela, in 1981 after they defected from Romania during a gymnastics tour of the United States. They’ve been the dominant figures in U.S. gymnastics for the past three decades.
“She definitely caught my attention,” Karolyi told me. “She was extremely bubbly, extremely bouncy. At the same time, her movements were not very precise, but you could tell that the raw talent was there.” After that tournament, in which Biles placed first on the vault and the beam and third all around, Karolyi invited Biles to join the national team’s monthly practice sessions at the ranch, which was only an hour’s drive north of Spring.
At the monthly team camps, Karolyi, a strict disciplinarian, helped transform Biles from a precocious gymnast into someone who could compete on the international stage. “Martha has this talent for getting the last two percent out of an athlete,” Boorman said. “She can bring Simone to that level of polish that I can’t necessarily get day to day. At camp, they all stand a little taller. They’re all a little more bright-eyed. They all want her approval.”
Although Biles was too young to compete at the 2012 Olympics, when she turned sixteen, in March 2013, she was almost immediately named to the senior national team, medaling at meets in Jesolo, Italy, and Chemnitz, Germany.
To help Biles manage the stress of international competitions, Boorman encouraged her to visit sports psychology coach Robert Andrews, who runs Houston’s Institute of Sports Performance and had worked closely with the 2012 U.S. men’s gymnastics team. At their first meeting, Biles barely spoke. “Are you always this quiet?” Andrews recalled asking. “And she said, ‘No,’ so I asked why she was being so quiet with me. She said, ‘Another gymnast told me only crazy people work with you.’ ” Andrews assured Biles that even sane people sometimes need counseling, giving her examples of other elite athletes he’d helped.
Four months later, the need for his help became obvious. At the Secret U.S. Classic in Chicago, in July, Biles seemed to mentally unravel, falling from the uneven bars, stumbling on the balance beam, and hurting her ankle on the floor exercise, which forced her to withdraw from the vault competition. “At that meet, she wasn’t precise in her movements, and when you’re not precise you make mistakes,” said Karolyi. “That makes you nervous, which leads to even more mistakes.”
Biles was despondent. “I felt like my life was going down the drain,” she told me. Boorman recalled watching her student’s “emotional spiral.” “We were like, this could be it, this could be the end of her and gymnastics.”
“She’s remarkably powerful, but she’s almost too powerful,” Andrews said. “It happens in any sport. Think of a baseball pitcher who overthrows—there’s just too much adrenaline, too much intensity, too much neurological stimulation. So we worked on learning how to back off of that and get into her zone.”
Biles’s visits to Andrews evidently helped. The following month, at the P&G Championships, in Hartford, Connecticut, she won silver on all four events and the all-around gold medal, finishing just ahead of Kyla Ross, a member of the Fierce Five. Still, few observers predicted what was about to happen. At the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, in Antwerp, Belgium, Biles, who was competing in the event for the first time, dominated a field packed with Olympic medalists and previous world champions, seizing the all-around gold medal by almost a point over Ross.
It took Biles a few days to absorb the knowledge that she was officially the greatest gymnast in the world. After returning to Spring, she was watching television in her bedroom one day when she saw a news report about her victory. When Nellie opened the door to check on Biles, she found her sobbing. “It finally hit her that she had won Worlds,” Nellie said.
Biles successfully defended her championship the following year, in Nanning, China, where she became a sensation after a video of a bee chasing her around the medal podium went viral. Then she made it a three-peat last fall, in Glasgow. When she returned to Texas, her parents threw an enormous party at their house to celebrate, inviting Biles’s teammates, friends, and family.
As in 2013, Biles seemed to experience a delayed emotional reaction to her victory. “The magnitude of what had happened didn’t hit her until that party, and she struggled with it,” Nellie said. “She pretty much had a meltdown. It was too much stimulation and too many people telling her how great she was. And that’s when she asked if she could see Robert again.”
Last summer, after extensive discussions with her parents, Biles announced that she was turning professional. She hired an agent and quickly signed a series of endorsement deals with Nike, the protein-drink company Core Power, and the athletic-apparel brand GK Elite, which now markets a line of colorful Simone Biles–branded leotards. But going pro meant giving up her full athletic scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she had planned to matriculate this winter, as well as any future college gymnastics eligibility.
“It was a very long and hard decision,” Biles said. “My dad kept telling me, ‘You can always go to college, but you can’t always go pro.’ That made sense to me. And also, if you have an opportunity to set yourself up [financially] in life, why not take it? So I was like, ‘Let’s get this going.’ ”
Along with NBC, Biles’s sponsors are working to make her one of the faces of this year’s U.S. Olympic team. Barring injury, she’ll be all but inescapable this August, appearing in commercials and starring in NBC’s prime-time coverage. If she’s as dominant as people expect her to be, even more lucrative endorsement deals may await. (After the 2012 Games, Gabby Douglas earned as much as $10 million from sponsors.)
If Biles falls short, on the other hand, she may be remembered as yet another world champion tripped up by the Olympic jinx. As she’s done throughout her career, she’s trying to focus on one meet at a time. During our interview in April, she pointed out that she had three meets to go before Rio, including the Olympic trials this month, in San Jose, California. But when you’re filming television commercials to air during the Olympics and appearing at events like the 100 Days to Rio celebration in New York, it’s hard to stay focused.
Talk with anyone who knows Biles well enough and they’ll eventually bring up the two Simones. There’s the Simone who tweets anodyne inspirational slogans to her 46,000 followers (“The task ahead of you is never greater than the strength within you”). Then there’s the super-intense, driven Simone, who puts immense pressure on herself to be perfect and can be brutal toward herself when she isn’t. “That girl has been that way from day one,” Nellie told me. “She always, always wants to win. Wants to be the fastest runner, the best everything.”
That Simone was on display earlier this year in the World Champions Centre as I watched her practice her balance beam routine over and over again, seemingly oblivious of the other gymnasts training around her. (The uneven bars are Biles’s least favorite event, with beam not too far behind. Her favorite two are the floor routine, in which she has an aerial flip named after her—the Biles, a double layout with a half turn—and the vault, where she can achieve astonishing height and power.)
I watched as she steadied herself on the far end of the beam, raised her arms above her head, and flipped herself backward into a series of effortless handsprings before launching herself into the air, executing a series of mind-bending twists, and sticking the landing. Then she climbed back on the beam and did it again.
In a typical week Biles trains on Mondays and Wednesdays from 12:30 to 5:30; on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 9 to noon and 3 to 6; and on Saturdays from 9 to 1. On Sundays, her one day off, she goes to church with her family in the morning and then hangs out with gymnast friends in the afternoon, sometimes driving to the Galleria to go shopping. She spends most of her downtime at home, eating, watching TV, and posting updates to her social media accounts, one of her few points of contact with the outside world.
Though she’s traveled internationally to compete in meets, her view of foreign cultures has been mostly through the windows of the U.S. team’s charter buses and luxury hotels. At international competitions, the gymnasts are sequestered—they stay in a different hotel from the one in which their families stay—to reduce distractions. If they’re allowed out at all, it’s for carefully supervised visits to a tourist site or megamall.
As the Olympics approach, more people than ever are pushing for access to Biles: television crews, photographers, and reporters like me. Her parents serve as gatekeepers, deciding on a case-by-case basis who gets through. “I like to think of athletes as having a protective bubble around them that they live in and train in and compete in,” Andrews told me. “Too many athletes make the mistake of letting people, information, reporters into that bubble. That can create a toxic environment. It can create distractions.”
Perhaps because of her insulated life, Biles can come across as naive on certain issues. When I asked if she considered herself a feminist, she seemed unfamiliar with the term. “Is that, like, female empowerment?” she said, shifting in her seat and looking at Boorman for guidance. She seemed equally impassive on the subject of race. After Biles won the 2013 World Championships, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito told a reporter that she had joked with a teammate that next time “we should also paint our skin black so then we can win too.” Biles’s father, Ron, was furious. “Normally it’s not in her favor being black, at least not in the world that I live in,” he told reporters.
When I asked about the incident, Biles brushed it off. “You could call me crazy, but it didn’t affect me at all,” she said. “I’m not saying I don’t care, but—” Boorman broke in: “I don’t think race has ever been a really big issue in her family life and with her friends. So she wouldn’t take offense to it, because it wasn’t something she had to struggle with.”
Biles’s parents and coach do their best to protect her from media scrutiny. Boorman was watching closely in 2012 when, in the midst of Gabby Douglas’s incredible Olympic performance, the gymnast’s long-absent father popped up, appearing in the stands, giving media interviews, and even asking his daughter to autograph memorabilia for him to sell. Boorman doesn’t want something similar to happen to Biles.
“I know Simone’s history, so I said to her parents that if she continues on this track, you can guess her [biological] mom is going to come out and is going to want to be publicly known. So you just have to decide how you want to deal with it. At first they were like, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ But I think within a month they gave an interview in which they said Simone is adopted and gave the very condensed story.”
By putting all the facts out from the beginning, the Biles family has thus far avoided the kinds of gossipy tabloid stories that blindsided Douglas during the 2012 Games. When asked if it bothers him when reporters inquire about his family history, Ron said, “We’re open about it. It’s not a secret. We don’t go around saying, ‘We adopted Simone because her birth mother had drug problems,’ but it isn’t something we’ve hidden.”
Since being adopted by Ron and Nellie, Biles has seen her biological mother, Shanon, just a handful of times, most memorably on a family cruise in 2010. “She was just like another cousin,” Biles said. “I would say hi, catch up with her, and move on.” Shanon calls a few times a year, at Christmas and on special occasions, but that’s the extent of her involvement. As for Biles’s biological father, Ron and Nellie said they couldn’t even remember his name. “He was nothing,” Ron told me.
According to Ron, Shanon still lives in Columbus, working as a caregiver. She claims to have been clean for several years. And although she isn’t part of her daughter’s life, she does follow the media coverage. “[Shanon] complains that the articles in the newspapers aren’t very complimentary to her,” Ron said. “I say, ‘They couldn’t care less about you. The only thing they care about is Simone and why she’s with us. Now you’re better, that’s fine, but the story’s not about you. It’s about Simone.’ ”
In May, Biles was the star attraction at the grand opening of the World Champions Centre, her parents’ massive, state-of-the-art gymnastics complex in Spring. Guests arriving at the gym were handed Nike workout bags containing a signed photo of Biles modeling her GK Elite leotard and a water bottle featuring the World Champions Centre logo (slogan: “The World Is Yours”). A selection of Core Power protein drinks was on offer to wash down the hors d’oeuvres being carried around on platters by uniformed waiters.
In a room overlooking the hangar-like gym, Biles, wearing jeans and a black sleeveless top that exposed her toned biceps, inspected a selection of purple training mats from the new Simone Biles Signature Line, now on sale from sports equipment brand Spieth America. Each mat was emblazoned with Biles’s signature; they had been delivered to the World Champions Centre earlier in the day. Biles walked around the room in a bit of a daze, staring at the mats. “Wow,” she said, to no one in particular.
Later in the evening, after posing for innumerable photos in front of a larger-than-life cardboard cutout of herself, Biles submitted to a few more of my questions. An article had just appeared in the Harvard Public Health Review calling for the Olympic Games to be postponed or moved because of the well-publicized Zika outbreak in South America.
Biles said she hadn’t been paying attention to the controversy, which she seemed to dismiss as just more media noise. “I think we have other things to worry about than some Zika virus,” she said, half-sarcastically. Doctors for the U.S. team had assured the athletes that they were taking adequate precautions, Biles said. “They worry about it so we don’t have to.” Anyway, she pointed out, no one would know until the trials this month who would actually make the U.S. team that would travel to Rio. Why worry about what she couldn’t control?
Of course, the gym’s grand opening was itself a distraction from training. Over the course of the evening, family, friends, and other gymnasts took Biles aside to say how much they admired her, how great she was, how they’d be rooting for her in the Olympics; at one point I overheard Biles telling a friend she was exhausted. I remembered something Andrews, Biles’s psychology coach, had told me about watching the gymnast’s early performances.
“When I met her, she was very serious and stoic at meets,” Andrews had said. “It didn’t look like she was having a very good time out there. And as I got to know her personality, I told her, ‘You’ve got to show that on the floor. You’re an entertainer: put on a show out there. Let the crowd know how much you enjoy what you’re doing.’ If you watch her now, the crowd is smiling, the judges are smiling. It’s a remarkable thing to see.”
These days, Biles certainly seems as if she’s enjoying herself more at competitions. Earlier this year she unveiled a new, high-energy floor routine featuring her shimmying to samba music. “The sport is called artistic gymnastics,” Biles reminded me. “So you do have to be a little bit of an actress. But I also have fun when I’m doing it. The dancing is more of the acting, but my facial expressions, those are real.”
Biles said she’s still learning how to set her own goals rather than trying to fulfill the rapidly multiplying expectations of others. “As athletes, we’re people pleasers,” she told me. “Sometimes you don’t get an option of what your expectations are, because so many people have already brought them upon you. Even if I break this Olympic jinx, there will be something else.”
Perhaps that’s why, when Biles finally hangs up her leotard and retires from the sport, she doesn’t plan to become a coach or television commentator, like so many other former gymnasts. “Gymnastics is really all I know,” said Biles, in an uncharacteristically introspective moment. “It would be good to venture out and see what else is out there. If it all fails, I can always fall back on gymnastics. I’ll always have that training. But I need to see what else there is.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the 2012 women’s gymnastics team is nicknamed the Fab Five. In fact the team is nicknamed the Fierce Five. We regret the error.