A year ago this month, the countdown clock to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo was halted and then reset because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, once again, we’re just about four months out from an Olympic Games that, should they go off as planned in late July, will look different from all that came before. The athletes will still travel to Japan from all over the world, but the spectators will not; as organizers announced last week, only Japanese fans will be allowed to attend the games.
This means that when Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history, takes her victory lap at the games, there will be fewer people watching her do it live. Biles, who holds the record for most world championship medals in gymnastics, has repeatedly asserted that these Olympics will be her last. This is a hard pill for fans, the media, and even those closest to her to swallow, since Biles’s ability hardly seems to be on the wane; in fact, she’s gotten better and even more dominant since her Olympic triumphs in Rio.
But Biles, who just turned 24, intends to retire from the sport after competing in Tokyo, and she’ll arguably leave it in a better place than when she arrived on the senior elite scene in 2013. She has pushed the technical boundaries of women’s gymnastics forward, pioneering new skills previously thought impossible: the double-double beam dismount and the triple-twisting double somersault on floor exercise, to name just two. Biles has also modeled how to be an advocate on behalf of herself and other gymnasts. Even while still competing on behalf of USA Gymnastics, she’s been a vocal critic of the organization that enabled former team physician Larry Nassar to sexually abuse her and at least 264 other women and girls.
Texas Monthly spoke with Biles, who lives and trains in Spring, about the postponed Olympics, the radical new skill she’s been working on, and learning to speak up publicly about her beliefs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Texas Monthly: You were just at the national team training camp in Indianapolis, the first in-person one since the start of the pandemic. How was it finally being back training together with the rest of the national team?
Simone Biles: It was strange, kind of getting into the swing of things. It still wasn’t a normal camp per se. But we definitely at least got to be together and see everybody.
TM: Over the past few years there’s been an ongoing discussion about race and racism in gymnastics, and how difficult it can be for a Black gymnast to be in spaces that are often very white. But at WCC [World Champions Centre, the gym that the Biles family owns and operates in Spring], you guys have built a team composed of several Black elite gymnasts. What’s it like getting to train every day with so many other Black gymnasts in a sport that’s known for being pretty white?
SB: You don’t see things happen very often like this. But then again, my parents own it; it’s a Black-owned gym. I feel that kind of attracts more of the Black community and people of color toward the gym.
I feel like we’re all pretty good role models for the younger girls, no matter ethnicity, religion, color, or whatever. But I definitely get how you guys look at our gym and you’re like, wow, their elite team is predominantly Black. And then there’s Olivia. [Olivia Greaves, a senior national team member, who is white.] It’s very unique, but it’s exciting. We see ourselves like, ‘Wow. We are all Black and we’re all doing really well.’ It’s just unique, because you don’t see many teams like that.
Hopefully little kids can look up at us and be like, “Wow, they’re doing it. I want to do that too. And I can do that, too.”
TM: Your gym has become a space where gymnasts who are perhaps not coming from the best coaching situations or have just been struggling have started to thrive. What do you think is special or unique about the gym and the coaching environment?
SB: We kind of thought 2016 was my peak. And then I paired up with Cecile [Canqueteau-Landi] and Laurent [Landi, former French gymnasts who coached 2016 Olympic gold medalist Madison Kocian] and they’ve seen me excel. I realized that if I want to excel in my career, maybe I do need a training partner and these coaches to help guide me along that way.
Maybe they looked at me as the lab rat. “She’s still excelling, look how good she’s doing.” Then Jordan [Chiles] moved down. And then we’ve had some others come. It’s been really exciting because I never really had a team before this. … I don’t think I could go back to training by myself.
TM: I watched your recent 60 Minutes interview and saw the clip of you training your Yurchenko double pike. You would be the first female gymnast to land one in competition. What do you think is the likelihood of you actually bringing this to, let’s say, the vault final at the Olympics?
SB: I feel like it might be a better bet to do it in the all-around final because you do get that one-touch warm up, rather than vault finals where you don’t. So I feel like we just have to go in and weigh the options, see what’s smart, get a feel of the vault.
So far, we’ve been training it pretty consistently and there haven’t been too many times where I was like, “Oh, that was really scary. Maybe we shouldn’t do that.” It’s actually been like, “Wow, this is feasible, we can do this.” And that’s kind of the scary part, me testing my limits, proving myself wrong, and being like, “Dang, Simone you can do this. That’s insane.” Honestly, at this age, I feel like I would kind of start going down, but I’m still going up.
TM: In the past, you and others have criticized the FIG [International Gymnastics Federation] for its controversial rating of the beam dismount you debuted at the most recent world championships. Do you think they’d rate the double pike fairly if you brought it to the competition? Or would you just do it regardless of rating, to show that you can?
SB: I would do it for myself, though I hope at the end of the day it would get the correct value, because that’s why we have an open-ended Code of Points, for everybody to test their limits. I would hope that it gets the correct value just so that if one day down the road, another girl’s like, “Maybe I can’t twist but I can flip,” and looks at the value, [the vault is] given, then it’s worth it [for her to attempt ] … The men do [the vault], so that kind of gives us good vibes because it’s already been done before. But at the end of the day, just go do it because I can get my name again in the Code of Points. And then we’ll see what happens.
TM: Your mother has said she’d like to see you continue to the 2024 Olympics as an event specialist. A few months ago, you told Dave Barron at the Houston Chronicle, “Mom doesn’t know how my body feels on the inside.” Do you think it’s hard for people to grasp the toll that the sport takes on your body?
SB: Yes, I think people forget that, because I’m doing things that are unheard of. They’re like, “Well, her body must be in tip-top shape,” which it is. But I still have those random aches and pains. And some days I don’t feel good, but then you have to force yourself to get out there and go for it. So I do feel like they forget, because they think I’m superhuman. But at the end of the day, I’m on the side stretching and stretching, and I have to do extra work and be cautious because I am getting a little bit older.
TM: What do you think an independent investigation into USA Gymnastics might yield for the survivors of abuse?
SB: We need to know who knew what, when, and how we can stop this from ever happening again. We need the enablers to be gone, because if they’re still in the system, or still working or profiting, we need them to be completely done.
TM: Do you think you’ll ever get all the answers you’re seeking?
SB: No, they’re [USA Gymnastics] gonna hide it because it’s their organization, and they’re protecting them.
TM: Not too long ago, you tweeted a reminder essentially asking people to stop tagging the survivors in every news story that comes out related to USA Gymnastics and abuse. What has it been like for you constantly being tagged on social media in response to these stories?
SB: It’s triggering, because sometimes I don’t want to see it. Obviously, I hear about it. My agent will inform me and then I have my parents informing me, but I don’t need a constant reminder every ten minutes. People are just constantly tagging me. For this instance, it was about John Geddert. [A former coach of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, Geddert was charged with sexual assault.] “He’s going to turn himself in.” And then, unfortunately, he did commit suicide. And then everybody’s tagging me, “Simone look, Simone look.” It’s like, “Guys, I understand. I see what’s happened, but I don’t need a thousand reminders.”
It’s just another knife to your stomach, because we still don’t have all the answers we need.
TM: Up until fairly recently, you didn’t really publicly express your political opinions. What has changed for you in that regard over the last few years?
SB: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really gotten to research for myself and see what I want to be vocal about. Whenever I see things happening in the world that aren’t supposed to happen, I’m going to put my input in because I know right from wrong, especially with Black Lives Matter. I am a Black athlete. I am a Black woman. I feel like for a long time, athletes were either silenced or punished for speaking out about what they believe in. But now we’re looked at [expectantly]: “Is Simone gonna say something? Is LeBron gonna say something? Is Serena gonna say something?”
TM: With all of the uncertainty around the games, do you feel confident that you will get a chance to compete at the Olympics this summer?
SB: Yes. I feel like the odds are getting higher and higher. Before, it was like a forty percent chance and then it went to like fifty-fifty. And now I feel like we’re kind of at a seventy. Japan has reassured us [that there will be] no [foreign] audience. I really feel like they want it to go on for the sake of the athletes working so hard. It’s gonna be not like any other Olympics we’ve had. But that will also be the greatness in it. It will be different. And we’ll get to go out there and do what we love and share our athleticism with the world.