America at Large: Rio coronation expected for gymnast Simone Biles
The coming Olympics will showcase the talent of perhaps the best gymnast ever seen
Gymnast Simone Biles: In competition, on the beam, on the vault or on the floor, she is a study of impeccable grace under pressure. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images)
There are many different ways to gauge the greatness of Simone Biles. Icons from different eras testify she is the best gymnast they’ve ever seen, Nadia Comaneci reckons the difficulty of her routines is comparable to that of her male counterparts, and, last October, the 18-year-old became the first woman to win three consecutive golds in the all-round at the world championships. But, perhaps the most graphic demonstration of her immense powers came in the aftermath of her first title back in 2013.
“I told Vane (team-mate Vanessa Ferrari) that next time we’ll have our skin black also so we can win too,” said Italy’s Carlotta Ferlito who had finished 11th behind the American. Although Ferlito later apologised, an official with the Italian Gymnastics Federation voiced what many of Biles’ detractors were actually thinking.
“Carlotta was talking about what she think is the current gymnastics trend,” wrote David Ciaralli. “The code of points is opening chances for coloured people, known to be more powerful, and penalising the typical Eastern European elegance, which when gymnastics was more artistic and less acrobatic, allowed Russia and Romania to dominate the field. Is gymnastics suiting coloured features more and more, to the point athletes wish they were black?”
Against that background, it’s easy to understand why Biles, all 4ft 9in of her, is the hottest of favourites to dominate this summer’s Olympics. Six months out from Rio, the hype is already starting to build even if America has a rather curious relationship with this sport. Every four years the country goes berserk about distaff gymnasts, living and dying with the successes and soap operatic failures of girls that go rapidly from anonymity to national darlings. Then, almost as quickly, everybody tunes out again.
Fame may prove more enduring for Biles, blessed with an effervescent smile, a charming personality, and a Dickensian backstory that will have Hollywood mavens salivating at the prospect of giving it the full cinematic treatment. Born in Columbus, Ohio to a mother who was in and out of rehab battling alcohol and drug addiction, she spent time in foster care before she and her younger sister Adria ending up being legally adopted by her grandparents, Ronnie and Nellie, in Texas.
“She thought she was a little mom in her house,” said Nellie Biles. “She made decisions for herself and her sister because this was all they knew.”
Shortly after arriving in Houston, her life took another fortuitous turn. When a school field trip to a farm was cancelled due to bad weather, her class was diverted to Bannon’s Gymnastix. There, something in the child clicked. One of the coaches on hand spotted the six-year-old Biles performing a round-off back handspring on a trampoline and saw enough raw talent that the kid arrived home that night with a note asking her parents to contact the club. Two years later, by then a fully-fledged prodigy, she was competing against 16-year-olds and her path was set.
“She just took off,” said Aimee Boorman, her coach and the woman who recognised her nascent talent that very first day. “She really had an aptitude to learn new skills. She was kind of a daredevil . . . we knew if we were patient with her, she could learn to do anything.”
While Biles and Boorman have tried to keep the teenager’s life as normal as possible, not always easy in a sport notorious for subjecting kids to punitive training regimes and dysfunctional lifestyles, she eventually, reluctantly, had to switch to homeschooling to allow for more time at the gym. Similarly, plans to go to UCLA to pursue a career as a paediatric nurse have been sidelined.
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In competition, on the beam, on the vault or on the floor, Biles is a study of impeccable grace under pressure. She will need to be all that and more as her celebrity grows, especially in a country where the more prurient sections of the media may soon focus on the addict mother with whom she does have a relationship but who will not be travelling to the Olympics.
“It’s not something we bring her into because that would just blow it up and make it bigger,” said Biles. “We’re just trying to keep it small.”
The more she achieves the less chance of succeeding on that score.