Simone Biles and Jonathan Owens met on social media just as the COVID-19 lockdown was beginning, in March 2020.
“I didn’t know who she was,” said Owens. “I just hadn’t heard of her, and when I told her that, that’s one of the things she liked.”
In the beginning, what caught his eye was that she had four million Instagram followers. Thus, the beginnings of a love story that’s fifteen months old between the most decorated American gymnast in history and a defensive back for the Houston Texans.
Oh, and the three bulldogs—two hers, one his—have hit it off too. “I’ll show up at her house,” Owens said Monday via Zoom, “and her dogs will peek around her looking for my dog. They’ve become best friends.”
Turns out, when the pandemic forced the postponement of both the 2020 Summer Olympics (now scheduled to begin next month in Tokyo) and training camp for the 2020 NFL season, the time away from their athletic careers was the perfect relationship builder.
“We ended up hanging out right before the pandemic,” Owens said. “It was one of the few times in her life where everything was just shut off and she couldn’t do anything. So we used it to get to know each other—really get to know each other. It created our bond and made it stronger. Now I’m so thankful.
“Her energy is something. She’s always happy, giggly, bubbly. If I’ve had a tough day at the office, I wouldn’t want to take that home to her. Her personality, man …”
He pauses and lets the next thought marinate. He’s 25, she’s 24. Both are outgoing, talkative, and optimistic, and both are among the best in the world at their chosen sport. (The best, in Biles’s case.) In that way, they seem perfect for each other.
“This was a match made in heaven,” Owens said. “There’s no better person for me. She loves me, she’s so affectionate. I just love that. And it’s just intoxicating seeing how much work she puts into everything.”
That they’re in similar arenas, that they both understand the ups and downs of sports at the highest level, is a unique aspect of their romance. “We talk all the time about that, just the pressure she goes through,” he said. “I try to be her motivating factor whenever I sense that she’s kind of maybe getting down on herself. If practice was a little rough, or your body may not be feeling great right now.
“She’s doing the same with me. She’ll be telling me, `Don’t be a baby, you’re all right.’ We’re both super competitive. When I see her getting up and going to practice every morning, it motivates me even more. It’s a great feeling when the person you’re in a relationship with understands what you’re going through. There are nights we’ll both be on the couch in NormaTec [compression] boots because we both had a hard day.
“It’s great to come home and get away from all the outside noise,” Owens continued. “We don’t even talk about the sport too much. We’ll just have regular conversations, just kind of read each other’s mind.”
And, as elite athletes tend to do, the couple can get competitive over whether landing the Yurchenko double pike or playing safety in the NFL is the more impressive achievement. “It took me a while to come to grips with how hard her sport was,” Owens said. “When we were first together, I was like, `Man, you can’t come outside and guard these wide receivers. Gymnastics is not that hard.’”
Then, like millions of others, he watched Biles compete. First, he watched videos of her flying through the air, contorting her body into unimaginable positions, and somehow landing on her feet. Two weeks ago in Fort Worth, Owens saw Biles compete in person for the first time, when she claimed her seventh U.S. title with another stunning performance that prompted gasps throughout the arena.
“Unbelievable,” Owens said. “It’s so amazing to watch. When I saw her for the first time, I realized that the TV really doesn’t do it justice. When she goes out there and does it, it looks so effortless.”
Biles will be one of NBC’s headliners—if not the headliner—for next month’s Summer Olympics. She’ll be attempting to become the first female gymnast to capture back-to-back all-around titles.
“It’s gonna be amazing,” Owens said of Biles in Tokyo. “I’ll be nervous. I’ll be like, `Oh my God, oh my God.’”
At that same time, Owens will be in training camp with the Texans and fighting to retain his spot on the regular-season roster. His own journey to the NFL is inspiring in a different way. He had no Division I scholarship offers coming out of Christian Brothers College High School in suburban St. Louis, so he wound up attending a Division II school, Missouri Western State.
Owens opened eyes when NFL scouts came to Missouri Western in 2018 to evaluate his draft prospects, and Owens recorded a 43-inch highest vertical leap—higher than any of the players invited to that year’s NFL Combine. He went undrafted, but signed with the Arizona Cardinals an hour after the draft. His rookie season ended with a knee injury in training camp.
“I was on the field crying,” he said. “I didn’t understand how that process worked. I didn’t know what my next move was going to be. I remember them walking me into the training room and telling me they were going to put me on injured reserve, and I didn’t know what that meant.”
The Cardinals cut Owens during training camp the following year, and he wound up working out alone in a public park near the team’s practice complex. “I’m seeing all my friends’ cars drive into the facility, and it motivated me,” he said. “It was a very humbling experience, because at the time I was feeling good.
“Coming back from the knee injury, I had a pretty decent preseason, but it just came down to numbers. A lot of the times it’s like that in the NFL. I couldn’t understand that, because I had formed relationships with the coaches and my friends on the team. It didn’t feel real at first. I thought I was supposed to be there.”
The Texans signed him to their practice squad before the 2019 season, and after one more knee surgery, he made it onto the field for one game in 2019 and six in 2020.
Asked the most important lessons of the last three years, he said: “Nutrition and how much of the game is mental. It isn’t just being an athlete. I went to a Division II school and was probably one of the more athletic, faster guys on the field.
“You get to the NFL, you realize everybody is fast, everybody was the best player on their team at one point. So you have to find that edge. And for me, I’m starting to realize that mental edge of just being able to read the field more.”
Still, when he reflects on all of it—the lack of Division I offers, the injuries, getting cut and finding a new team—he’s happy that he has ended up in Houston, in a happy relationship, and with a chance to pursue his NFL dream.
“Honestly, it’s been a blessing, all of it,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything.”