Simone Biles: ‘I’m not a little girl anymore, I feel like I’ve really found my voice’

America’s greatest athlete hasn’t ruled out competing at the Paris Olympics in 2024

Simone Biles competes on the balance beam during the  2019 US Gymnastics Championships at the Sprint Center  in Kansas City, Missouri. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Simone Biles competes on the balance beam during the 2019 US Gymnastics Championships at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Photograph: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

 

So much has changed in the five years since Simone Biles lit up the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, affirming her presumptive status as the greatest gymnast ever with four gold medals in seven days.

The 24-year-old from suburban Houston moved out of her parents’ house into her own digs, adopted two French Bulldog puppies (Lilo and Rambo) and went public with boyfriend Jonathan Owens, a safety for the NFL’s Houston Texans.

She enlisted the husband-and-wife coaching team of Laurent Landi and Cecile Canqueteau-Landi following an amicable split with long-time personal coach Aimee Boorman. The sport she’s come to define was rocked by the worst sexual abuse scandal in American sports history. And her bid for a historic second straight Olympic all-around title was waylaid by a global pandemic that turned the sports world on its ear.

But as America’s greatest athlete enters the final stages of preparations for the rescheduled Tokyo Games this summer, one familiar constant endures: her only competition is herself.

“I’m not a little girl anymore,” Biles said this week. “I feel like I’ve really found my voice and kind of used that for good in the world and on social media platforms, so that’s been a big plus. I live on my own now, I have a house, I have a dog. I feel like I’ve just grown so much these past few years into the young woman I am today. I’m really excited about life and what’s to come and how I’ve changed and evolved as a person.”

The 4ft 8in, 105lb dynamo, who was born three months short of the age cut-off for the 2012 London Games, was already hailed as the best gymnast in history before she’d even competed at an Olympics. Now she’s the runaway favourite to become the oldest woman in more than five decades to win the Olympic all-around title, the sport’s most coveted prize, and the first repeat champion since Vera Caslavska did it for the former Czechoslovakia in 1968.

“We’re four months out. I’m feeling pretty good, pretty confident. All of our training has geared us for this moment, so I’m just super excited for the journey,” Biles said. “It’s been tough, but during our time off, we still did Zoom workouts with our coaches, so we were still engaged. And as soon as we got back in the gym, it was kind of just like full speed again, to try to get ready and gear up for this year’s Games. It’s been tough, but it’s definitely been worth it.”

For Biles, who has won every major team and individual all-around competition she’s entered since her senior debut in 2013, Tokyo was long expected to be the capstone of an incandescent career. But she threw the sport a curveball this week by leaving the door open for a third Olympic appearance at the Paris Games in 2024, when she would be 27.

“Honestly, right now my main focus is the Olympic Games, and then after I have the tour that we’ve put together,” Biles said. “Then afterwards I’m not so sure, because Cecile and Laurent are from Paris and they’ve kind of guilted me into at least being a specialist and coming back [for 2024]. But the main goal is 2021 Olympics, tour, and then we’ll have to see.”

After her star-making coronation in Rio, Biles returned home to the whirlwind, peripatetic existence of a mainstream celebrity, sling-shotting around the US for red-carpet walks, glossy photo shoots and Dancing With the Stars. Then came a hard-earned series of vacations with the family and friends she’d sacrificed so much of her teenage years for.

Simone Biles performs on the vault during the women’s all-around final at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at the Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Halle in Stuttgart in October 2019. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images
Simone Biles performs on the vault during the women’s all-around final at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at the Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Halle in Stuttgart in October 2019. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

It seemed there was no room to go but down. But when she returned to competition after a year-and-a-half hiatus, Biles continued to rewrite the record books while somehow raising her level on the biggest stages, eclipsing Vitaly Scherbo’s record as the most decorated gymnast in world championships history with 25 career medals.

To the resignation of her rivals, she’s proven untouchable even when below her best: Her margin of victory at the 2018 worlds was the largest ever despite two falls and a kidney stone that sent her to a Doha emergency room less than 24 hours before she was scheduled to compete.

Then came the pandemic, followed by the inevitable postponement of her much-anticipated Olympic encore.

“The main thing was just like trying to stay healthy another year, trying to have your mental game up another year,” Biles said. “It’s another year on the body. It’s just a lot to think about, but then at the end of the day, it’s like we worked so hard.

“We’re not going to give up. We’re going to keep striving for this goal that all the athletes have kind of put in their head is the 2020 Olympics. And once it was postponed, it’s like I’ve gone too far to give up now. So, we’re going to take a little bit of a break.

“And we did. We quarantined for seven weeks before we got to ease back into the gym. And once we did that, we still were doing one workout a day before we could go back to two workouts and that honesty kind of helped keep my spirit up and think that it was going to be okay. Now, obviously, I’m still a year older, but it’s been my goal for a while and I wasn’t ready to hang that up just because of the quarantine and the postponement.”

Biles found silver linings in the disappointment, including the opportunity to take leave from her gruelling six-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week training sessions and spent more time with her loved ones.

“I was able just to kind of gather my thoughts and protect and take care of my body, my mind, my spirit,” Biles said. “But what’s been really exciting is being able to experience life with my family, my friends, getting to go to my boyfriend’s games. I told him I’ve never been so many games in a season in my life because usually I’m just so busy all over the place.

“But in the beginning of the quarantine, it was really, really hard because me and my family were really tight-knit and my parents wouldn’t let me over to their house for months. And so it was just like the dogs and I chilling at home and I would take them on so many walks. I think they were so sick of me because I was just so bored.”

Once loath to speak out on thorny issues, Biles has become an outspoken voice for change within USA Gymnastics. Since coming forward as a survivor of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar in 2018, she has openly criticised the national governing body for its failures in protecting and caring for its athletes. Her tweets led to the closing of the Karolyi Ranch, the place where many of the gymnasts were abused, and played a role in the resignation of USA Gymnastics president Mary Bono.

Simone Biles poses after the apparatus finals with the five gold medals she won at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at the Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Halle in Stuttgart. Photograph: Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images
Simone Biles poses after the apparatus finals with the five gold medals she won at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at the Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Halle in Stuttgart. Photograph: Thomas Kienzle/AFP via Getty Images

Biles, who’s also thrown her support behind the Black Lives Matter movement, spots further opportunity to leverage her global celebrity for a greater good with the USOPC announcing it will allow social justice demonstrations at the US Olympic trials, in a break with the International Olympic Committee policy.

“If you were to ask me years ago, I would say no, because I was just a little bit nervous of what Marta [Karolyi] or other people would think,” she said. “But now that I’ve kind of found my voice, I feel like not only can it benefit me, the team, and the people that are supporting and advocating for, but it kind of helps everybody and people get to see a little bit of who you are just besides an athlete and what you stand for.

“I’ve thought about it a little bit because as soon as they announced it I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we could do so much with the [leotards], make a statement for good. So it’s been really exciting, but, it wasn’t easy to find my voice or to put it out there because it’s a little bit scary about what people are going to say. Because at the end of the day, a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, you’re an athlete’.

“But we’re not just athletes but people too. And we have a right to speak up for what we believe in.”

Biles confirmed she plans to compete three times in the run-up to Tokyo: at the US Classic in May, the US national championships in early June and the US Olympic trials in late June. Which means she’s back in the grind of her famously rigorous training regimen at the World Champions Centre, the sprawling 56,000 sq ft gym outside Houston built by her parents as their retirement venture.

“The first practice starts at 7am and then we go to 10.30 and that starts off with warm-up and conditioning,” she said. “Then we do beam and bars twice a day. And if we do vault in the morning, then we’ll do floor in the afternoon.

“At 10.30, I’ll head home and usually have a quick lunch, chicken or salmon, whatever that may be. I don’t have a crazy strict diet. I kind of eat whatever I want, just in proportion, but definitely on the leaner and healthier side.

“Then I take a shower. I try to be down from my nap at 12, wake up at 1.30, then I’m back at the gym at 2 to 5, or whenever we finish working out. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I get therapy after with our trainer here and then that’s kind of how it is. And then Thursday, we have a half day, Saturday we have a half day, so at the end of the week, it’s about 32 to 34 hours. But since we’re gearing up for competition season, we’re doing more routine work.”

Despite winning by margins that are unusually large for gymnastics, Biles keeps adding new and more difficult skills to her routines and pushing the technical limits of the sport. Lately, she’s been drilling a Yurchenko double pike vault, a technique no woman has ever thrown down in competition. Should she land it in Tokyo as planned, it will become the fifth element named for Biles in the women’s artistic gymnastics code of points.

“I know we will definitely debut it before the Olympics,” she said. “Just because we need to see, get out there and kind of control my adrenaline once I do that before the Olympics so we can perfect it in competition before that.”

It’s all the same for Biles after nearly a decade of gravity-defying supremacy. Somehow, there’s nowhere to go but up. – Guardian

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