Simone Biles made history Sunday night. She became the second woman in history to win gold at the USA Gymnastics National Championship five times. The 21-year-old gymnast from Spring was also the first person since Dominique Dawes, in 1994, to do a gold medal sweep at nationals—winning in the floor exercise, balance beam, vault, and uneven bars. Those are incredible feats even for the reigning Olympic champion, but what’s even more inspiring is that Biles accomplished them while sending a message to USA Gymnastics.
Biles sported a teal leotard of her own design, and it’s no coincidence the color is associated with sexual assault awareness. Biles says that she wore the leotard to show solidarity with the athletes abused by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. In January she revealed that she was one of his victims. “I picked [the leotard] out in January,” Biles said. “But it is for survivors, and I stand with all of them.”
Biles is using her stature in the gymnastics world to show support for other athletes Nassar abused, some of whom are still coming forward. On Thursday, Biles tweeted support for fellow Olympians Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross, who spoke about their stories of abuse at the hands of Nassar for the first time publicly to CBS. Biles is also vocal about the lack of communication and transparency from USA Gymnastics leadership, particularly Kerry Perry, who was appointed CEO of the organization in December. Since taking over, Perry has made few public statements and provided little clarity about how USA Gymnastics will move forward in restructuring the organization to prevent another predator from abusing athletes.
Biles expressed her reservations about the future of the organization to the Houston Chronicle last week. “I’m not sure yet. Hopefully it’s going in the right direction, but nobody can know until Kerry Perry speaks up,” Biles said.
And Perry did speak up on Sunday, at her first news conference since assuming the role of CEO. Critics said that the press conference—seven minutes of Perry reading from a prepared statement and fifteen minutes of questions—provided little of the assurance, clarity, and transparency necessary to move forward from large-scale abuse. ESPN’s D’Arcy Maine writes that Perry gave only vague responses to questions and made it clear that she hadn’t spoken with athletes who had been abused by Nassar, including Biles. Although Perry said she’s spoken with Biles’s parents on multiple occasions, Biles said Perry “really hasn’t talked to my family too much.”
In the absence of communication and clarity from USA Gymnastics leadership, many are looking to athletes like Biles as a signal of the future for USA gymnastics. “That’s a lot of feedback I get,” Biles said, when asked by the Houston Chronicle. “It’s kind of crazy. It’s not fair to me, because I can’t carry the whole gymnastics world on me, but I guess it’s kind of exciting that I can bring some happiness back to the sport.”
Biles and her fellow athletes deserve better. A powerhouse athlete like Biles, with an eye on the 2020 Olympics, should be allowed to focus on the sport—not be burdened with representing USA Gymnastics and its poor communication. And yet, in the simplest and most powerful ways, Biles continues to excel as both a gymnast and a role model.