This is what we owe Simone Biles when she’s back in Texas: the biggest, best welcome-home party of all time.
Let’s wrap our collective arms around the state’s adopted daughter and smother her with an ovation that’ll ring forever in her ears.
In Houston, we know her as more than a great athlete. We know her as a caring member of the community who has used her enormous platform to help others, and who makes every encounter feel like you—whether you’re a fan, a sportswriter, or a young gymnast at her training facility—made her day.
We’re known for overdoing things, so let’s do this one right: a huge parade through downtown Houston with every band we can find and streets lined six or seven rows deep with people. Biles has been there for us so many times that we’d consider it an honor to be there for her, in the wake of what appears to be a personal crisis after her withdrawal from competition at the Tokyo Olympics. “I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat, and work on my mindfulness,” Biles said.
Let’s make sure she knows how much we appreciate her, and not simply because she’s the greatest gymnast of all time. We get that part of her story. Everyone does. But here in Houston, we know she’s about more than that. When the floodwaters came after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, she showed up at food-distribution centers and homeless shelters asking, “What can I do?”
In the worst of times, she said it was the people who lost everything that inspired her. “It is amazing to see everyone giving back,” she said. “Even people who have lost everything in this storm are even coming and volunteering.”
She has been omnipresent in offering a hand to charities, hospitals, and people in need. She has used her time and money to advocate for kids in foster care, of which she was one before being adopted by her maternal grandfather, Ronald Biles, and his wife Nellie. She has raised money to help empower young girls. In 2018, her opening up about the sexual abuse she suffered from former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar surely gave others the courage to speak out.
One of the first things she’ll tell you is that she has been blessed in too many ways to count. But what makes Biles special is that she is committed to using the voice gymnastics has given her to help others. “I think of it as an honor to speak for the less fortunate and for the voiceless,” she told Vogue in a July 2020 profile. “I also feel like it gives them power.”
Perhaps this will be her next act. Athletes, particularly Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever, are speaking out about mental health in a way they’ve never done before. They’re telling us that they struggle with the same pressures, pain, and relentless expectations that so many other people struggle with. In other words, they are human.
That’s more true of no other athlete at these Tokyo Olympics than Simone Biles. She went to Japan this summer having accomplished so much, and having made unprecedented feats in her sport look so easy, that virtually nothing she did would be enough. Imagine the pressure.
This isn’t even about perfection. Biles understands that perfection on the biggest stage is part of the deal. Her challenge was greater than that. How do you build on a standard that was already in a place virtually no one could touch? Her challenge was to fly higher and farther, to twist and dip and do things that no one had ever done. Anything less—that is, anything less—would be met with a hot take that she’s too old, that she has lost her edge, that her time has passed.
When she nailed something called a Yurchenko double pike in practice last week, the reaction was, “Well, sure, easy for her.” No female in Olympic competition had ever done this ridiculous exercise that requires a flip off of the vaulting table and two full rotations in a pike position before landing.
Oh, and it had to be done flawlessly. Suddenly, the conversation shifted to her completing the Yurchenko or disappointing the world.
After the pandemic forced a one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games, Biles wondered aloud if she could maintain her edge that long. When the pandemic forced her to take time off—something she’d almost never done—she told the New York Times it was one of the happiest times in her life.
As the Times‘ Juliet Macur wrote:
In the many months leading to this summer, Simone Biles couldn’t wait for the Tokyo Olympics.
Not for them to start. For them to end.
The weight she carried as the face of the sport had become a burden. And the wear and tear on her body had become what she called “unreal,” with the pain in her ankles making every excruciating step a reminder of how unforgiving gymnastics can be.
In a telephone interview about a week before leaving for the Tokyo Games, she was asked to name the happiest moment of her career.
“Honestly, probably my time off,” she said.
Coming from the most decorated gymnast in history, a woman who revolutionized the sport, it was a striking comment.
She was the athlete NBC had built its Olympics coverage around, and had she dominated the way she was expected to, the world would have shrugged its shoulders and said, “No biggie.”
She was America’s sweetheart after the 2016 Games, where she won three individual gold medals and helped the United States claim gold in team competition. With a red, white, and blue bow in her hair, a wide smile, and an endless reservoir of charm, she made the grueling sport look ridiculously easy.
Then, this week, with the world watching and collectively yawning at her greatness, she faltered once or twice during her team routine. In doing so, she reminded us that even the toughest, smartest, most dedicated athletes in the world are susceptible to pressure.
And when Biles returns home, all of Houston and all of Texas should show her that we appreciate everything she’s accomplished. After the parade and the speeches and all that, she can head over to Minute Maid Park for one of her patented flip pitches that’ll shake the place to its concrete-and-steel bones.
We just want her to know that we appreciate who she is and what she’s done.
You are home, Simone.
You are loved.