There are few certainties in sports; for the last eight years, Simone Biles has been one of them. You always knew she was going to make the 2020 U.S. women's gymnastics team and that she was going to win Olympic gold unless some act of God intervened.
The closest there is to an act of God, the one thing that could stop Biles from making another Olympic team and claiming another all-around title, is upon us—the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has so far infected over more than 16 million people and killed hundreds of thousands and crippled the economies of several countries, including the U.S. In March, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach announced that the 2020 Games would be postponed until summer 2021.
Had it not been for COVID and the postponement, Biles, barring a different act of God, would’ve won the marquee event of the women’s gymnastics competition—the all-around final— last week in Tokyo. This would have been her second consecutive Olympic all-round win, and Biles would have been the first woman to defend an Olympic all-around title since Czechoslovakian gymnast Vera Caslavska last did it in 1968.
This gold medal is something that Biles, no doubt, wants, even if she doesn’t need it. She is the greatest gymnast of all-time, and doesn't need another Olympic Games to cement her status as such. At this point, the Olympics needs her more than she needs it. The sport of gymnastics owes her more than she owes it. USA Gymnastics should just give her the keys to the castle at this point, given what they’ve put her through despite all that she has done for them.
This profile was supposed to be a pre-Olympics story on Biles. I’m sure there were others just like it—well, I hope not just like it—in the works. The months leading up to Tokyo 2020 were going to be wall-to-wall Biles coverage. Without Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps competing, Biles was set to be the face of Tokyo 2020. With the Games postponed and various sports canceled for the foreseeable future, perhaps this story could’ve gone on the shelf until shortly before the 2021 Games rolled around. But that assumes a lot of things—that there will be an effective vaccine by 2021; that the rolling lockdowns that have interrupted training and competition will be done; and that the postponed Games will even take place. It’s not necessary to wait for all of the unknowns to become knowns. Biles has given us more than enough to be certain of, and this will remain true regardless of what happens over the next year.
Simone Biles would like to thank herself. She didn't use those exact words, but that was the gist of what she told me when we sat down to speak at her training base in Spring, Texas last winter. COVID-19 was already spreading through the Hubei province in China, but neither of us were thinking about that at the time. Biles was looking forward to her career finale at the Tokyo Games, and I thought I’d get to watch her do it.
"There was a guy in an interview, I don't know if it was Kanye or Kevin Hart or somebody. They were like, 'I would like to thank myself.' And it blew up the internet," Biles said. "Because at the end of the day, if you write your own music, you produce your own music, and you put it out, you have yourself to thank."
It was actually Snoop Dogg who said it upon receiving his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and what he said was perhaps a nod to what the legendary Black folk and blues musician Elizabeth Cotten said many years prior. Regardless of who said what and when, though, Biles' larger point stands: If you put in the work and you succeed, you don't have only yourself to thank, but you certainly should be somewhere on the list.
The Olympic champion, her hair in a loose bun, wearing a navy and red leotard with rhinestone details, her legs still lightly dusted in chalk from her bars workout, sat across from me in a red swivel chair. Her posture was quite relaxed—both feet up, barefoot, her right arm resting on her knee, the Olympic ring tattoo on her forearm facing me throughout our conversation.
We were in one of the offices at World Champions Centre, the gym that Biles' family owns and operates. This spot offered an unobstructed view of most of the gym through the glass windows; it was fairly empty that day save for a few coaches and high-level gymnasts. Those were the only people expected to show up to practice on the days between Christmas and New Year's. (It would take COVID-19 to cancel practice for everyone, including the elites.)
"You're allowed to thank everybody else but the minute you thank yourself, you're like, this girl's cocky,’" she said.
"I feel like, even in an interview after the meet, you're like, 'Yes, I did good.' People are like, 'Oh God, who is she?' We're not allowed to acknowledge the good work that we do," she said. "And we've put in so many hours, so I don't understand why we're not allowed to acknowledge it."
Biles is a Black athlete who is a woman, and for many, one of the gravest sins a Black woman can commit, besides beating white people at a sport they had previously dominated, is to appear insufficiently humble and grateful to white people for their success.
Biles' bravado is fairly new for her. I've interviewed the gymnast several times, the first being in 2014, by which time she had already won her first world championship. Back then, she tended to downplay her talent, asserting that she was beatable when she clearly was not. Even in 2016, after she had already won three world titles and every other gymnast had all but conceded the Olympic gold to her, she prefaced her remarks by saying things like, "If I make the Olympic team."
Despite what she said to me before the 2016 Olympics, I do think Biles understood, or was beginning to understand, just how good she was. There's a big difference, though, between that private knowledge and public acknowledgement.
"I feel like over time, it's taken me a lot of confidence to realize, 'Yes, I am the best. I've been the best for a couple of years now,'" she told me in Texas. I wanted to correct her and note that she's been at the top for a little longer than a couple of years. There's no point in quibbling though; at least Biles' awareness of just how good she is has caught up to her abilities and competitive results.
"It's taken me a lot of confidence to realize, 'Yes, I am the best. I've been the best for a couple of years now.'"
By the time we sat down to talk, I had already watched her practice on the uneven bars—hence the light chalk dusting. She did half-routines on the apparatus—sometimes the first half and sometimes the second, but never the two of them together. It was early in the season, at least for Biles, whose first meet was supposed to be in April in Tokyo before COVID-19 derailed the entire 2020 sports calendar and postponed the Games. She didn't need to be in full routine shape yet.
That day, I saw more misses than hits from the greatest gymnast of all-time on what is admittedly not her best event, though she’s still good enough there to earn a few apparatus final berths there. On one attempt, she missed the high bar by a mile as she was transitioning from the lower rail. She landed in a sitting position between the bars with a near-smirk on her face. On another turn, she stalled out in her handstand atop the bar and jumped down, letting out an ucch in frustration. On another attempt, she cast to a handstand on the low bar, but overarched, falling over the other side. One of her coaches, Laurent Landi, who had been moving between events and gymnasts called out, "What did you do?”
"I fell on my cast handstand," Biles replied.
"On purpose?" Landi asked, his tone light.
"No," she said.
It certainly didn't appear to be on purpose from where I was sitting, but Biles also didn't fight hard to save it, as she would have if this had been a competition, a national team training camp, or even a practice right before a major meet. She just hopped down and went to the chalk bucket to regroup. In a gym, the chalk bucket functions as a water cooler would in an office. You go there if you need to re-chalk, but also if you need a breather and just want to engage in some idle chatter with your teammates. And Biles loves to talk. Her voice rings out all over the gym during the practice, as does her laughter. It's one of the many ways her presence is felt in the gym. There's also the name of the place, World Champions Centre; the doors opened before Biles went to Rio and won Olympic gold, when she was only a world champion. On the wall, there is signage from Biles' corporate sponsors, including a large swoosh. There are subtler things, too. One of the younger girls was wearing a tealish leotard, a tank version of the long-sleeved one that Biles wore at the 2018 national championships in honor of those who are, like her, survivors of sexual abuse.
None of the gymnasts paid me much mind as I sat off to the side scribbling in a notepad for nearly three hours, a light film of chalk settling on my black jeans. I silently admonished myself for my clothing choice that day. After 10 years of doing gymnastics and more than 10 years of covering it, I should've known better than to show up to a gym wearing black. Later, when I rued this choice to Biles, she empathized. It's hard, she said, because black looks good with everything. The New Yorker in me agrees.
Making things look good is what gymnasts do. More than that, they make it look effortless. It's part of the structure of the sport; in gymnastics, unlike in a math problem, you're supposed to hide your work. Whether it's because she's the greatest or whether she's the greatest because of it, no one does a better job of masking just how hard all of this is than Biles. When you watch her soar through the air as if it was the easiest thing anyone could ever do, you can forget all that she's gone through to get there.
For most casual viewers of gymnastics, the sport looks like magic. They watch gymnasts flip and twist through air, seemingly in defiance of the basic laws of physics, and have no idea how they're doing it. They're not even sure of what they're seeing. If gymnastics existed during the 15th century as it does now, its practitioners would probably be drowned for witchcraft.
It's an altogether different experience from watching other sports. When I watch a basketball game, I understand all of the moves that the professionals are doing, because I can do most of them, albeit on a much lower level. I can run back and forth from one end of the court to the other, even if I'm not as fast as and get winded way before the pros do. I can shoot a basket from the free-throw line, though I may do it granny style and it might take me 50 tries to get one in. Do a layup? Every once in a blue moon. There's a huge difference between doing a layup on the playground with no one guarding you and doing it under pressure, against a coordinated defense with a shot clock running. Of course. Most of the sport's components, though, can be comprehended by someone who hasn't played the game in a real way. The NBA pro is at one end of the spectrum, and I, the talentless hack, am at the other side, but the spectrum is at least visible.
Gymnastics also exists on a spectrum, but it is invisible to most.
Which brings me to Biles. If it's difficult for the layperson to comprehend what the typical elite gymnast is doing—how many twists and flips they're doing in the air, how they got up there—how do you even begin to understand what Biles does as she flies higher than her peers and crams more twists into her flips?
The seeming incomprehensibility of what Biles does inflects the language used to describe it; over the course of her career, it has gotten more grandiose and more hyperbolic. While this was wholly complimentary, it has also had the effect of erasing her hard work by presenting her as something almost alien. I'm guilty of it myself. In our attempts to explain Biles and her abilities, those of us who have written about her haven't demystified her at all.
Biles, though, wants you to understand what she's doing. Less than 10 minutes into our conversation, as I brought up the crazy skills she had introduced to her competitive repertoire during the post-Rio phase of her career—the triple twisting double somersault on floor and the double double off beam—Biles immediately launched into a description of the process she undertook to bring them from the foam pit to the competition floor.
Work on the triple-double started, she explained, simply by playing around in the gym. "We were messing around with it, we kind of saw the potential in it, that maybe one day, or maybe in an Olympic year, we could compete it. Then you just play a little bit more, and then it starts to turn serious," Biles said.
What she then went on to describe would be familiar to anyone who has spent a decent amount of time in a gym as an athlete or watching the athletes train. "You take it from the rod floor, and then you put mats on and you stack it up, and then you go to the floor, you do like double-doubles on the mats," she said. The rod floor is a training device used by many gymnasts to work on tumbling passes—less bouncy than a trampoline, but bouncier than the traditional spring floor you see on TV. (Just a note: power tumblers do use the rod floor in competition to do some absolutely wild shit.)
Biles then took her triple-double from the rod floor to the floor exercise. She stacked mats and did her double twisting double somersault—a skill she has been using in competition since 2012/2013—to the top of those mats. Landing onto an elevated surfaced forced Biles to set higher with her arms to get the extra height that she would need to get in order to stash an additional twist into the skill. And then, finally, the triple to the regular floor.
"It's an evolution. I feel like people are like, 'Oh I don't know how she does this,'" Biles said. "But it's been years in the making. We just don't do these skills if we don't think it's going to work." Biles and her coaches are not rolling the dice with this or anything else that she does in competition.
Her explanation of how she works is a subtle pushback against the superhero narrative that has developed to describe her abilities. Biles wasn't bitten by a radioactive spider one day only to find herself able to scale buildings. There is a process, and it looks the same for Biles as it does for everyone else. The difference with Biles is the yield of her hard work. Her teammates might max out at a tucked double back or a double layout or even a double double. But for Biles, the endpoint of her abilities is still unknown.
In this, the second act of her career, the outer limits have finally been tested. Since her return to competition in 2018, Biles has had three skills named after her. Prior to Rio, Biles had only one skill named after her, a double layout on floor exercise with a half twist. This is more than most elite gymnasts ever get, but you wouldn't have called Biles one of the sport's great innovators back then. What made Biles stand out in the pre-Rio period—besides all of the winning—was her capacity for difficulty. Most gymnasts can do perhaps one ultra-difficult pass in their floor routine. Biles did four, and she did them higher than they've ever been done. Biles also performed skills originated by other gymnasts better than they had ever been done even by their namesakes. Cheng Fei of China may have introduced the roundoff half on, laid out one and half twist off, but it was Biles who took it to its apotheosis. In Biles' hands, it flies higher and farther than Cheng took it; she keeps her body stretched all the way down to the mats. It simply cannot be done better than how Biles has done it.
And everything she did, she did with power to spare. Biles' large, bounding steps back after her passes, while they led to deductions, were also a message that she could do even more.
The "more" part came after Rio. She tacked an extra half-turn onto her Cheng and made it the Biles. And then last year, she brought two new outrageous skills to the competition floor—a double twisting double somersault from the beam and a triple twisting double somersault on floor. The latter had gone viral when she first did it at the 2019 national championships; the former resulted in a minor international incident when she brought it to the 2019 world championships and the Women's Technical Committee (WTC) of the International Gymnastics Federation, the body that decides on the rules and skill values for the women's events, lowballed it. The WTC released a statement saying that they gave it a lower value in the interest of safety, claiming they wanted to discourage risk taking. It was not hard to view this decision as targeted at Biles as a way of impeding her dominance. If anyone else is ever going to be able to pull this skill off, they're not going to be your average elite gymnast; they're going to have to be a once-in-a-generation athlete like Biles. And that's precisely the kind of athlete who can do the skill safely.
These elements—the astounding tumbling pass, the crazy dismount—are, though new to competition, not new. Biles had done them before. Videos of her doing the double double beam dismount have been circulating online since 2013. The floor pass, too, had appeared online prior to Rio. But fans never expected to see them performed in competition; in fact we were explicitly told by Aimee Boorman, Biles' former coach, that we wouldn't be seeing them. Before Rio, Boorman told me that there would be no upgrades to Biles' repertoire. She had upgraded slowly in the three years leading up to Rio and she was going to stick with those skills for the Olympics, where she would be under more scrutiny and pressure than she had been under in her life. Those outrageous skills we saw in the videos? That was just Biles playing around in the gym, trying to break up the monotony of doing the same thing, day in and day out.
The plan worked. Biles was nearly flawless in Rio, aside from a mistake on the balance beam during apparatus finals. She came home with four gold medals and one bronze. Biles had maintained brilliantly.
That these new, outrageous skills have been surfacing in competition probably has a little to do with the fact that Biles is working with new coaches. Boorman moved to Florida during Biles' hiatus, and there was no way that she was going to follow Boorman and move away from the magnificent 55,000-square foot facility her family had built in Spring. Her coach would have to come to her.
As it turned out, it was two coaches: Laurent Landi and Cecile Canqueateau-Landi started working with Biles in late 2017. Both Landis are former elite gymnasts from France and were members of its national team. Canqueateau-Landi was part of a generation of French gymnasts in the mid-'90s that broke through on the international stage, placing a surprise sixth at the 1995 world championships with an almost avante garde style that was the talk of Sabae; her teammate Ludivine Furnon became the first French female gymnast to win a medal at the world championships.
The gymnastics shidduch between Biles and the Landis was made by Rhonda Faehn, then the senior vice president of USA Gymnastics' women's program. She told Biles’ parents that the Landis, after spending more than 10 years at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy outside of Dallas, where they coached 2016 Olympic gold and silver medalist Madison Kocian, were looking to move on.
"They came down to talk to me about [what] my goals were, if I was really serious about coming back to the sport and trying to make an Olympic team because that was what was most important," Biles said. "Rather than like, some gymnasts back in the day, tell their coaches, they're going to come back, and then [at the] last minute they bail out.
"They just didn't want to make sure that happened because they put a lot of time and effort and they move their whole life here, so it wouldn't be fair for them," Biles said.
Laurent and Cecile confirm this, saying that during their initial meeting, they questioned her about her motivation. "What's the purpose behind your comeback? Is it like something because you feel pressure of your sponsor or family or anything else or it's just undone business from yourself and that you want to prove to yourself?" Laurent said.
A fair question. What exactly does the greatest gymnast of all time still have left to do in the sport?
What exactly does the greatest gymnast of all time still have left to do in the sport?
Well, for starters, enjoy the process this time around.
"I think she is more in charge and she wanted to because the first time around, it happened so fast and you're so young. Then she turned back around and was like, 'I kind of did not enjoy [any] of the steps and the reward. I just was on a mission and I did it and that was it,'" Cecile said.
Winning is not enough; winning is almost beside the point. If winning was all that mattered, Biles would've made only minor adjustments to her program from Rio. She wouldn't have started introducing all of these new skills.
"It's going to be very hard to motivate her in the gym if we keep the same assignment almost year after year," Laurent said. "She already won everything so … it's impossible to motivate that type of person if you don't challenge them every day. That's what we try to do."
Biles welcomes the challenge. "What can we do to push ourselves, to push the sport, to see what I'm capable of as a human being rather [than] going into a meet and being like, 'Eh, my routines are fine, I'm going to win anyways,'" she said.
As a human being.
As if she could be anything else.
Biles has had to repeatedly insist on her humanity with the media. At times, after she has fallen in competition, Biles has reminded gaggles of reporters that she is, indeed, human, the proof being that she sometimes makes mistakes. But the same humanity that explains her errors is also behind all of her successes.
And in keeping with her humanity, there are limits to what Biles can do. Those limits may not be dictated by physical ability, but they're very real nonetheless. For instance, Biles struggles with fear. Cecile says she won't do a couple of skills, such as a standing Arabian or standing back full on beam even though she's physically capable. "She just doesn't have the confidence," she said. "It's really not worth it to really push that skill." If she were younger, Cecile mused, she would probably push Biles to overcome her fear, but not at 23.
By that age, you understand in a much more visceral way just how badly you can get hurt.
In early 2018, Biles came forward as a victim of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor who abused hundreds of women and girls, many of them gymnasts, and many of them Biles' friends and teammates.
Biles is singular even in this: She is the only publicly known Nassar survivor still competing under the banner of USA Gymnastics, the very institution that enabled her abuse. She has no choice. She wanted to compete at the 2020 Olympics, and this was the only path afforded to her due to the monopolistic structure of Olympic sports.
But Biles, while competing for USA Gymnastics, has voiced her displeasure with the organization. She has openly wept as she has called out the organization hosting the very event she was competing at. "We've done everything that they've asked for, even when we didn't want to and they couldn't do one damn job," Biles said to reporters at the 2019 national championships. "You literally had one job and you couldn't protect us." The problem was that USA Gymnastics and the USOPC actually didn't think protecting the athletes was their job. They saw their mandate as winning medals, and Biles helped them fulfill their goal.
Her mother Nellie told me about the anger and hurt she felt at the revelation that Nassar had abused Simone. We were sitting in the parents' observation area above the gym. Everything below was visible through plexiglass, but the sounds coming from the gym were somewhat muffled.
Nellie said that they had been aware early on that there was some kind of investigation going on, but didn't realize it pertained to her daughter.
"No one ever, ever leaked to me, 'You're a part of this too," she said, despite the fact that she spoke with some of the other mothers about the abuse for hours. "[I] cried with them.
"Sometimes I was thinking maybe there was a hidden language."
But Simone was involved, almost from the outset. As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, her name was mentioned early on, in the notes that Rhonda Faehn turned over to then-USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny, but no one ever bothered to tell the gymnast. The organization didn't want their star to know what was going on—not when they needed her to do press and sponsor work a year out from the Games. The Journal's story described an exhausting press schedule that Biles endured in the first weeks after Maggie Nichols and her coach Sarah Jantzi reported their suspicions about Nassar to USA Gymnastics. Penny and USA Gymnastics treated Biles not like a human being, but like a show pony. She even made an appearance at a party for Penny’s daughter’s gymnastics group.
Nellie must've suspected that something had happened, because she asked Simone several times if she had also been sexually abused by Nassar.
"She denied it," she said, "so you have to go with the 'no.'
"She denied it," she said, "so you have to go with the 'no.'
"But somehow deep down, the 'no' got relayed with emotions, so there was a lot of anger with that 'no,'" Nellie said. She paused for several seconds. "I know my daughter and I felt that that was not true. However if she tells you 'no' then you stay with that 'no.' You don't push, you don't push any further.
"I took that 'no' several times," she continued, even though she knew that, deep down, it was a "yes."
The "yes," when it came, wasn't even said aloud. "One day, she called me and she was just bawling and crying on the phone. She was, 'Where are you?' and she was very frantic." Nellie told her that she was in her office. "She came to the office and we held each other and we cried for a long time. And she didn't have to tell me anything else. I knew what that was all about."
Nellie said that after that they reached out to the detectives. Shortly after, Biles put out a statement on Twitter saying that she, too, had been abused by Nassar, making her the third member of the 2016 Olympic team to come forward. The first was Aly Raisman, who was followed by Gabby Douglas.
Later, another member of the 2016 team would come forward: 2016 bars silver medalist Madison Kocian. This last one hit Cecile and Laurent very hard; they had coached Kocian for several years. (One of their other pupils, Alyssa Baumann, a member of the gold medal winning 2014 world championship team, has also come forward as a Nassar survivor.) "We spent 10 years [with Kocian and Baumann]," Cecile said. "It was really painful when we found out but you just make sure they know that we believe them and we support them and we're here … Any time of the day, the night, if they need to talk, we're here."
Biles played a part in Kocian and Baumann telling their former coaches about the abuse. Both gymnasts had initially denied that they had been abused the first time their former coaches had asked them. Biles, perhaps because she realized how many times she needed to be asked, told her coaches to reach out again. They did and this time, the gymnasts said that yes, they had been abused.
Cecile said that when Nassar's sentencing in Ingham County—during which more than 150 women gave victim impact statements—was happening, they spoke with the gymnasts. "But after that, just not too much."
Cecile said they take their cues from the gymnasts. "We don't talk about it," she said, "unless they want to talk about it."
I had taken a similar approach in my conversation with Biles earlier in the day. I didn't ask her about Nassar directly, as I did her mother and coaches. I was grabbing some time with Simone between rotations; after she was done speaking to me, she had to head back out into the gym and tumble. It seemed wrong to bring up something so deeply traumatic—one of the worst things that has ever happened to her—and then send her back out to do double layouts, even if she was expecting me to do exactly that. I asked somewhat generic questions about speaking out and using her voice, and let her decide where she wanted to go with it. Biles went up to the edge, but no further, and I didn't press her. (Biles has never disclosed the details of how Nassar had abused her, and she never has to.)
"For me, I felt like, as hard as it was for me, I knew it would help other people," Biles said of the decision to go public about the abuse. "It wasn't just about me, it was about helping other people speak out and saying, 'Yes, this happened to me, but it's not going to be like a burden or my whole life.'
"Most of the time, you think your life is over," she said, "but it's not."
"Most of the time, you think your life is over," she said, "but it's not."
Biles shares her forward-looking attitude with her mother. "Life goes on, you know, you cannot be stuck in that one place," Nellie said.
Simone hardly seems stuck, if you take what she's been able to accomplish since coming forward as a survivor in January 2018 as proof. She has gone on to shatter nearly every record in the sport, including most world championships medals won by a gymnast, male or female, at the 2019 world championships. It was previously held by Vitaly Scherbo of the USSR. The men have six events to the women's four, which means they have two extra medal opportunities per competition; this makes the fact that Biles snatched the record from Scherbo all the more impressive.
But the path forward after a trauma like the one Biles endured is not a perfectly linear one. The anger—a righteous one if you ask me—will resurface, as will the hurt and pain. Healing is not a straight line like the balance beam.
The trauma of the abuse was a big part of the reason that Biles wouldn’t immediately commit to continue training into 2021. “I was so sad,” she told me of her reaction to the postponement. “Honestly, I don’t know if my body can do it. I don’t know if I can deal with USAG [USA Gymnastics] for another year, USOC for another year. I’m just like, I’m hurting in more ways than just physically right now.”
I spoke to her mother shortly after the postponement announcement came. Nellie said her daughter was distraught over the news, even though Simone recognized it as the right decision given the risks the virus poses. "She was crying, she was upset, she was frustrated," her mother told me. "She said she did not know how she was feeling; she couldn’t put her feelings in words because there was so much emotion."
"We all know it's the right thing to do, but you still have your personal feeling," Nellie said. And Nellie gave her daughter permission to fully embrace her emotions about the postponement. A simple directive, perhaps, but one that is probably alien to a lot of gymnasts who are encouraged to ignore their pain, both physical and mental, in favor of what others want from them. And that meant sitting tight with her feelings—her anger, her sadness, her confusion—and not saying anything even though we all wanted to hear from her. "It's okay to not speak out," Nellie said she counseled her daughter. "You don’t have to talk. You could just go through your grieving process the way you want to." Biles didn’t owe us more records, and she didn’t owe us her thoughts, either.
The gymnast waited eight days before she decided to speak publicly about the postponement. And in addressing the media, she didn’t offer up what many of us wanted to hear—a guarantee that she would stick it out for another year. Rather, she hinted at her limits. "Mentally, I don’t know if I can handle it," she told the New York Times.
A year is a year, even for Simone Biles. She doesn’t experience time differently than the rest of us. "She said, 'That’s a whole year … people are saying that and to them, it’s nothing but to me, one year is a lot. A lot to me because I’m not getting any younger. And a year is another year that I didn’t plan on pushing my body so hard,'" Nellie told me.
Like a lot of people, I think of Biles as a forever athlete, in it for as long as she wants to keep going. But that’s because she makes it look so easy. And intellectually I realize that it isn’t; I’ve spent several thousand words trying to show the work she so artfully hides and yet I was still taken aback when Nellie said this to me. This shit is hard, even for Simone Biles.
When I spoke to her in December about her future in the sport, I relayed something I had heard from a former international elite gymnast about Biles. He once commented that if Biles scaled back her difficulty, she could keep going in the sport for years to come. She brushed off this idea, as did her coaches when I brought it to them later in the day. But to hear Biles describe her own reaction to the postponement and the pain she’s dealing with, I realize how wrongheaded my earlier thoughts were. We’d like her to do gymnastics forever, but that doesn’t sound like something she wants for herself.
Another year on her body, another year of worry about not making it to the Games because of an ill-timed injury. “I still think I’m gonna hurt myself, and I’m going to be out and I’m going to miss meets, to miss the Olympics,” she told me back in December.
But Biles did eventually decide to commit to train for the 2021 Olympics—if there is a 2021 Olympics. Though we didn’t discuss the possibility that 2021 could be canceled, Biles did acknowledge the uncertainty that pervades her current training regimen. “We kind of have a set plan for the rest of the year going into next year,” she told me of her post lockdown return to the gym. (Biles had been out of training for approximately seven weeks.) “We still don’t know if we’re going into another lockdown, so we’re just kind of doing what we can control,” Biles said. As I spoke to the gymnast just over a week ago, cases were rising in Texas. “Oh God, the numbers are crazy. People are still acting like fools,” she said of the virus’ spread across her home state. At World Champions Centre, the Bileses have put in place rules to minimize the risk, including a mandate that all gym staff must wear masks at all times. (In this video, Laurent Landi is clearly masked while spotting Biles through a crazy tumbling pass.) The gymnasts cannot wear them when they’re practicing, as they pose a safety threat, but they do have to wear them when they leave the practice area and go outside.
I asked Biles about athletes in other sports who have been openly expressing concerns over the precautions—or the lack thereof—that are being taken by the professional leagues to ensure their safety as they return to the field. "You have to take care of your athletes so that you can bring in that revenue," Biles said, pointing out what should be obvious—that protecting the athletes’ is actually in the leagues’ financial interest in the long run.
"At the end of the day, we’re still going to do our job and put up for what we worked for, so as long as you’re doing your part in helping us and keeping us safe and healthy, then we’re going to do our part as athletes, because that’s our job," she said.
"As long as you’re doing your part in helping us and keeping us safe and healthy, then we’re going to do our part as athletes, because that’s our job."
But Biles has already learned the hard way that the athletes can do their jobs exceptionally well and the institutions can still fail miserably at theirs. I asked her if she was concerned that USA Gymnastics was going to take the proper steps to limit the gymnasts’ exposure to COVID-19 once camps and competitions resumed. "I don’t think they can afford any more bad media, so I think going forward, they’re going to take all the right precautions," she said, before pivoting to acknowledge that she was talking about an organization that doesn’t know how to avoid bad press. "Then again, they always throw a curveball and they always do something that you’re like, 'Okay, whatever. I can’t believe that but it’s real, so …'"
What comes next for Biles? It’s a question she was getting asked a lot even before COVID-19 and the postponement, because she had been adamant that Tokyo 2020 was going to be her final hurrah. The question feels less pressing now than it did when I spoke to her in December. We’re all wondering what comes next, but we’re not thinking of a distant future but of the next day, next week, next month. We’re living in a holding pattern. When I spoke to Biles again last week, I didn’t ask about her plans for the future as I had back in December. My questions were very much focused on the present—how training was going, how is she settling into her new house, the potential new romance she’s been hinting at on social media. (Of the last, she said, "We've gotten to spend a lot of time with each other and really get to know each other because of quarantine. That's kind of when we met so there was nothing to do but hang out and get to know each other.")
But at least I had the presence of mind to talk about the future with Biles back in December, when thinking of far ahead wasn’t seen as something of a fool’s errand.
"How can you look forward to it if you're trying to live in the moment and do what you do?" she asked. "If I was trying to figure out what I'm going to do after this, I feel like I wouldn't be committed to this right now."
Nellie’s words reminded me of that commitment, of just how badly Simone still wants it. Simone said nothing to make me doubt her desire, but because she’s won so many gold medals, broken so many records, you start to wonder if the postponement news hit her as hard as it would have someone who hasn’t had her success. It’s difficult to see things the way that she probably sees them. I look at all that she’s accomplished and think, well if that was me, I’d be over the moon. But that’s because I, and most others reading this, have no hope of being so exceptional at anything the way Biles is at gymnastics. I’d be thrilled with a sliver of her success precisely because I am not her. When you’re as good as Biles is, the winning doesn’t blunt the desire for more. She keeps after excellence no matter how many times she’s attained it and never wants it any less for having already achieved it many times before.
But being this good at one thing can make it difficult to figure out what else is out there for you. That’s what is next for Biles, though, depending on what she decides, the process of self-discovery starts a year later than she expected it to.
"I feel like right now, the only thing I'm good at is gymnastics," Biles told me. "But I feel like a lot of athletes have that issue because you dedicate your life so hard to be good at it. And then everything you do [after] is kind of just, even if it's good, it's just like …" she said, trailing off.
The recently retired Tessa Virtue, one half of the best ice dance team of all-time, expressed a similar sentiment. About a year after her final Olympic skate in Pyeongchang, she spoke candidly about how difficult it's been for her to find her purpose in her post-skating life. "Whatever I take on next, I'm never going to be the best in the world," she said. Which is plainly true. Virtue will never be as good at something else as she was at ice dance.
"We almost feel like all of our life and social skills [have been put] aside to be good at one thing, and then you put us in the real world, and we're just like, lost," Biles said. There was a subtle but significant shift there. Biles went from "I" to "we." I was asking her something that was specific to her—How does one move on from being the greatest of all time at something?— and she answered by situating herself in the collective, relating her problems to those of her fellow athletes.
Biles is not the one who started calling herself the greatest. In fact, it took a while for her to warm up to the concept. When it comes to thinking about her life after the sport, Biles sees value in relating her experience to those of other athletes.
The need to label her as greater than them—the greatest—has always been about those doing the labeling more than it is about her. We needed a way of explaining her virtuosic talent, even if the label obfuscated more than it explained. We've never bothered defining what we meant by "greatest." Are we talking about her medal count? Or the number of records broken? Or the new skills she's introduced? Or the height on her somersaults? Or something else?
Greatest is the word we use to talk about Biles because we can't fully understand what she does and how she does it, no matter how hard she tries to explain it to us. We just know we're seeing something transcendent. And that transcendence is not tied to any one competition, no matter how important.