As we continue our Women to Watch blog series — highlighting women that are redefining gender norms, breaking glass ceilings, and dominating their industries — we now turn our attention to perhaps the most dominant female Olympian in the last decade: Simone Biles.
“As a Black woman, we just have to be greater,” Biles said in an interview with The Cut. “Because even when we break records and stuff, they almost dim it down, as if it’s just normal.”
Fresh off being named Time Magazine’s Athlete of the Year for 2021, we want to shine the light on the 32x Olympic and World Championship medalist, who is only just beginning what is shaping up to be a bright future.
Simone Biles’ Early Years
Biles was born in Columbus, Ohio on March 14, 1997. Following her mother, Shanon Biles, putting Simone into foster care, she was adopted by her maternal grandfather Ron Biles and his wife Nellie. Her adoption, and subsequent move to the Houston suburb of Spring, Texas, would be the platform that would launch her gymnastics training and career.
From a young age, it was clear that Biles had something her fellow gymnasts did not, as her former coach of eleven years Aimee Boorman told the Los Angeles Times, “When I first saw her, I was like, ‘Wow, this kid has something.’ But what it was and how far she could go with it, I had no idea.”
Beginning at six years old, Biles began working under Boorman’s tutelage. While Biles’ talent was undeniable, she, like many other young athletes, went through countless ups and downs — From scoring a 0.0 on the vault in her first ever competition, to becoming the first African-American female to win the all-around title at the world gymnastics championships in 2013.
During her training as a young girl, and through her teenage years, one theme was constant, a focus on mental well-being and enjoying a life outside of the gym. Márta Károlyi, the former national team coordinator for USA gymnastics, explained that while Boorman could push Biles when necessary, she was also able to “[see] that Simone needs a mental break” at crucial times.
This style of coaching not only foreshadowed Biles remarkable decision at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but worked wonders for her as she would go on to become the most decorated female gymnast in the history of the world championships — winning three straight all-around titles and ten total gold medals; setting her up for one of the most successful careers in the history of gymnastics.
2016 Olympic Dominance
Biles’ first chance at Olympic competition came during the Rio games in 2016. At the age of 19 and near the peak of her athletic powers, Biles set fire to her competition on her way to becoming the most successful American woman gymnast at a single Olympics. She won five medals in total, in five separate competitions:
- Team event — Gold
- All-around — Gold
- Vault — Gold
- Floor exercise — Gold
- Balance beam — Bronze
At that stage in her career it was becoming clear that women’s gymnastics hadn’t seen an athlete like her before. Not only was she racking up medal after medal at the olympics, but she was performing skills that had never been seen before in women’s competition. Her unmatched athleticism and technique in vault, floor exercise, and balance beam resulted in three separate skills being named “The Biles.”
Following Rio, Biles continued to dominate her competition at each of the following World Championships, and looked primed for another dominant and record setting Olympic showing in 2020.
Her star power also began to take off, not only for her skill but her willingness, unlike other female athletes in years past, to let the world know just how dominant she was. “It’s not out of cockiness,” she explained to USA Today in a 2019 interview. “I’ve won five world titles and if I say, ‘I’m the best gymnast there is,’ (the reaction is) ‘Oh, she’s cocky. Look at her now.’ No, the facts are literally on the paper.”
Biles continued, “It’s important to teach our female youth that it’s OK to say, ‘Yes, I am good at this,’ and you don’t hold back. You only see the men doing it. And they’re praised for it, and the women are looked down upon for it. But I feel like it’s good [to do] because once you realize you’re confident and good at it, then you’re even better at what you do.”
Actress Blake Lively once explained that the best thing a woman can wear is confidence, and Biles was full of it. But even for the most talented individuals, life can still provide unprecedented challenges.
Managing Olympic Expectations and Mental Health
Leading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the expectations for Biles were sky high. With five medals to her name already, she was within reaching distance of getting 11, which would tie her for the second most medals by a female gymnast in Olympic history.
Instead of another sweeping performance, Biles developed a mental block known by gymnasts everywhere as “the twisties.” Essentially, it’s a condition where gymnasts lose their in-air awareness while performing tricks. It can be extremely dangerous, especially when attempting to pull-off the high-flying moves Biles is known for.
Biles explained via Instagram that she had plenty of poor performances throughout her career, but that this was something much different and wasn’t possible to overcome simply through mental fortitude. She needed time off to focus on her mental health, and with a packed Olympic schedule that meant pulling out of the individual all-around final as well as the team event of the same name.
Her decision to pull out of those events became news item number one across the globe, and harsh criticism came from all angles. She was labeled a “quitter”, deemed as an unfit role model for children, and a terrible teammate to her fellow American gymnasts.
“I Should’ve Quit Way Before Tokyo”
Biles decision highlighted the dismissive nature of the general public when it comes to mental health issues, but specifically for women.
It took a couple months, but eventually Biles was ready to address the issue, and explain the trauma behind developing the “twisties” in Tokyo and her decision to pull out of two events.
Biles had been sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, a man who was sentenced to 60 years in prison for countless crimes of abuse against Biles and numerous other American female gymnasts.
“I should have quit way before Tokyo,” said Biles in a tearful interview with The Cut. “When Larry Nassar was in the media for two years. It was too much. But I was not going to let him take something I’ve worked for since I was 6 years old. I wasn’t going to let him take that joy away from me. So I pushed past that for as long as my mind and my body would let me.”
Moving Forward with Purpose
The last six months have been unimaginably difficult for Biles, but as she begins to regain her gymnastic confidence she has started to shape an impactful career outside of competition.
In October 2021, she announced on the Today Show that she is working with the mental health and telemedicine app Cerebral as its chief impact officer. Biles is also an investor in the startup that has raised over $462 million, and has a valuation of $4.8 billion.
Taking the announcement of her partnership to Instagram, Biles posted a selfie with a caption encouraging people to take mental health seriously.
“To anyone out there who may be struggling with #mentalhealth, please know that you are not alone,” she continued. “If I’ve learned anything over these past few months, it’s that it’s ok to take a step back from everything to take care of yourself.”
While Watching Simone, Watch these Women As Well
Biles hasn’t ruled out competing in the 2024 Paris Olympics just yet, according to her coach Cecile Canqueteau-Landi, and said herself that she would be leaving the door open to a potential return to Olympic competition.
While we don’t know quite yet what the future holds for Biles, we know that she, like the other subjects of our Women to Watch series, will have an even greater impact in the years to come. For more Women to Watch, check out the profiles we’ve done on philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and film director Ava DuVernay.
You can also check out the woman who’s name sits atop this webpage — Hope Smith! The former model, mother of four, and Founder and CEO of luxury skincare brand MUTHA™. Hope, like Simone Biles, has been addressing and promoting the mental well-being of mothers all over through her brand’s Bad MUTHAS campaign.
Don’t forget to check back next month for the newest addition to the Women to Watch series!