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SIMONE BILES, IN HER custom-fit, red, white, and blue leotard, stood on one end of the mat, her left hand high in the air, her right resting on her hip.
Twelve thousand fans stared down at her inside Rio Olympic Arena in Brazil, everyone hushed and quiet as they waited for the music to start and Simone to begin a ninety-second floor routine that might tumble her right into history.
The then-nineteen-year-old from the suburbs of Houston, Texas, was in the lead at the women’s all-around gymnastics competition at the 2016 Olympics. All that remained was her strongest event—floor. Do it well and she’d be crowned champion.
There were Olympic rings hanging on a banner overhead. There was a gold medal waiting to be hung around someone’s neck. There was anticipation in the air as spectators wondered what type of show the greatest gymnast of all time would stage. She was a tiny figure in the middle of a huge arena, an American dynamo who stood just four foot eight.
“I tell people four foot nine sometimes,” she once said with a laugh.
To say this was Simone Biles’s lifelong dream, the one that powered her through the days at practice when she lacked motivation, wasn’t even true. She had never actually dreamed this far. Olympic champion? Gold medalist? The greatest of all time? That was too much to conceive, even on those quiet nights growing up when she tried to fantasize her way to sleep.
No, as a young gymnast, leaping and cartwheeling through recreation classes and local Junior Olympic meets and even as she climbed the competitive national and international ranks, pushing herself more and more, she aspired only to reach the Olympics.
Just getting here was enough. Winning gold? It somehow never crossed her mind.
Simone was a planner. She liked to write down goals in a small notebook she kept in her bedroom back in Spring, Texas. It could be about achieving a certain grade in a certain class, something related to gymnastics, or another milestone. It was a way to keep her focused. It was a way to keep her going.
Yet once she qualified for her first Olympics a few weeks prior to the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, there was nothing else she had written down that remained to be accomplished. She had already been national champion four times and world champion three. She had already turned professional. She had already signed contracts that would make her millions in endorsement deals.
Her mother, Nellie, was concerned that Simone might not perform well if she didn’t jot down the ultimate goal—Olympic champion in the all-around. That gold signifies the best in the world because it requires each gymnast to perform in all four events—vault, balance beam, uneven bars, and this one, floor exercise. So Nellie encouraged her daughter to put it on paper, make it official.
Simone was hesitant. It seemed unnecessary and even made her nervous and anxious. She had come to embrace the philosophy of Martha Karolyi, the US national team coordinator and a legendary coach in the sport.
“Martha would say, ‘You want to perform like you train. Did you perform like you trained? If you perform like you train, then the judging will work itself out,’” Simone said.
It’s a simple lesson that can deliver incredible accomplishments. Do what you can do and don’t stress about anything else.
“If I do my job, I do my job,” Simone said. “There is nothing I can do to control the scores.”
So Simone would only meet her mother halfway. She did write down a new goal, but it had nothing to do with medals or scores or sticking the landing on an Amanar.
“I will make you proud,” Simone wrote to her mother.
That was it. That was all. Nellie could only smile when she read it. Simone could have fallen fifty times on her floor routine and she would still be proud of her daughter.
Ron and Nellie Biles were not Simone’s birth parents. They were, originally, her grandparents.
Ron Biles had a daughter from a previous relationship named Shanon, who had given birth to four children, including Simone, the third child. Shanon and the kids lived in Ohio, but when Shanon struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, eventually child services said she was an unfit mother and took her children from her, putting them temporarily in foster care.
Ron and Nellie had married after his first relationship broke off, and they were living in Texas at the time. When Shanon was unable to care for her kids, the pair stepped in and adopted the two youngest, Simone and her little sister, Adria. The two older children went with another relative. It wasn’t planned this way, but Grandma and Grandpa officially and legally became Simone’s mom and dad. Ron and Nellie already had two older boys and now the family was unexpectedly bigger, and given Simone’s natural interest in flips and twists, bouncier.
Neither Ron nor Nellie knew anything about gymnastics when Simone and Adria first began going to a local gym to burn off excess energy. They certainly never expected to be here, at the Olympics, staring down at their daughter who was on the verge of winning the all-around gold. It wasn’t the athletic success that made them love her, though. It was everything else.
“We have so much satisfaction from all our kids,” Ron Biles said. “We love family and everything involved with it. We share all the special moments together and this is a pretty special one.”
Down on that mat, Simone was trying to remain calm. She had trained since she was six years old to get to this spot. She had always been a pint-size powerhouse, always small for her age. Yet in elementary school, she was often stronger than the boys and had no problem showing them.
She was pure muscle, with ripped arms and springy legs that launched her into the air. She had a core so strong she could twist in midair almost at will. She also possessed an unteachable ability to sense where she was while in flight.
The routine she was about to attempt was one of the most technically challenging runs of skills in the history of the sport. The Olympics were home to the best gymnasts on earth, yet no other gymnast present would even attempt such a difficult feat.
Simone wasn’t just going to try it. She was going to try to do it perfectly.
It began with a full-twisting double layout, where a gymnast flips in the air with her legs completely straightened out (rather than bending her knees). Next up, a double laid-out salto (a flip with the legs tucked to the chest) with a half twist, a move so hard that no one had ever landed it in a World Championship until Simone had done so in 2013. As a result, it was known as “the Biles.”
The Biles led Simone into a split jump and later there was a tumbling pass with a double-double (two somersaults with two full twists) and then the finale with a tucked full-in (two somersaults and a twist with legs pressed together and to the chest). In between the four tumbling runs, there were other required moves, choreographed dancing with a salsa flair, and a beaming smile to engage the crowd.
The routine was so demanding that it earned a 6.800 degree of difficulty, which is one part of a gymnastics score. The other is how the judges think you executed it. No one else in the meet had a difficulty score higher than 6.600.
Simone hadn’t lost an individual all-around competition since 2013, yet this one, the Olympic all-around, hadn’t been easy. She had led after the first event, vault, but then fell behind Russia’s Aliya Mustafina after the second rotation, bars, when Aliya put up an impressive 15.666, a full 0.7 higher than Simone.
The crowd in Rio de Janeiro mumbled in surprise when Aliya took the overall lead, 30.866 to 30.832. Everyone had expected Simone to run away with the gold, just like always. Now they were wondering if a historic upset was in the making.
Simone’s personal coach, Aimee Boorman, told her to just stick with her training. Teammate Aly Raisman, who was also competing in the all-around, high-fived her and tried to pump her up.
And Bela and Martha Karolyi, the legendary husband-and-wife coaching duo who essentially ran USA Gymnastics, reminded Simone that since bars were her weakest event and Aliya’s strongest, there was no need to panic. There was plenty of time during the final two events—beam and floor—to retake the lead.
“That made this competition so spicy, so beautiful,” said Bela Karolyi, who for over forty years had coached many of the greatest gymnasts of all time. “The beam is the leaning point [though]. The left or the right. The best-trained gymnast stays on the beam.”
Well, beam was next. And before Simone’s routine, she heard Nellie Biles shout a saying that she’d been screaming to Simone her entire competitive career.
“You’ve got this, Simone!” Nellie said.
That was more than enough for Simone. As with the floor event to come, she benefited from having a far more difficult technical routine in the beam than her competitors, tougher than anyone else was even willing to attempt.
She then drilled it, proving herself, as Bela said, “the best-trained gymnast,” and scoring a 15.433 to Aliya’s 13.866.
Once again Simone was in the lead, this time by a commanding 1.533 points (while that may seem like a small margin, it’s a huge lead in gymnastics).
By the time she stood on the mat to start her floor routine as the last performer of the night, she knew gold was there for the taking. Aliya’s overall score had even been passed by Aly Raisman, thanks to Aly’s tremendous execution on a very difficult floor routine.
Aly Raisman was competing in her second Olympics after winning a gold medal in 2012. She was famous and a hero to gymnasts around the world. Yet she knew that she wasn’t going to beat Simone’s score. Simone’s lead was so large, and her routine so challenging, she could fall multiple times and still win.
Aly was fine with that. She, along with everyone else in attendance, knew there really was no competing with Simone Biles.
“[US teammate] Laurie Hernandez said to me, ‘If you get silver, you’re the best because Simone doesn’t count,’” Aly said with a laugh. “Her start value is [so much] higher than me so I know I can’t beat her.”
Simone didn’t like that kind of talk—she wanted to encourage her teammates. She loved them and was proud of how good they were. “I get more excited when they win,” she said. When Aly finished her brilliant floor routine to assure her at least a silver medal, she cried in delight, with Simone hugging and celebrating with her.
Suddenly Simone was fighting back tears of joy for Aly. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s going to make me cry before my floor,’” Simone later said with a laugh. “And that wasn’t going to be good.”
With what felt like the whole world watching Simone, it was not the time to think of Aly or anyone else. This was about doing what she had trained to do. This was the time to concentrate. This was the time to win.
As the music started, the anxiety melted away and a huge smile broke out on her face.
“That is all we needed to see,” her older brother, Adam, who was also there cheering her on, said. “As long as she has a smile on her face, we know she is in a good place.”
Soon she was sprinting down the mat for her first tumbling run and springing into her round-off. Her muscles were trained. Her mind was clear.
“Sometimes nothing goes through my mind,” Simone said. “When I tumble, I just tumble.”
She soared nearly ten feet into the air before landing cleanly, with just a small hop to take away the momentum. The crowd roared. Soon she was repeating it … the buildup of speed, the concentration, the flying toward glory before ending with a sound, sharp landing.
Just like that, Simone Biles knew she was going to win gold.
“Once the first two passes were out of the way, I knew I was good,” she said.
Everyone knew. The crowd was now on its collective feet, waving flags and roaring in delight. This was the ultimate performance, a dream combination of skill and entertainment. Simone leaping. Simone flipping. Simone in total command.
“The joy,” Bela Karolyi said of watching it. “The satisfaction.”
“Pride,” her dad said.
This is what Simone wanted—to perform for the beauty of performing. Not for judges. Not for medals. She had always loved gymnastics for the sake of gymnastics. She hadn’t reached the national team until she was fifteen, late for the great ones. No one had ever doubted her ability, but coaches were frustrated that she sometimes wanted gymnastics to be more about fun than just work.
Simone liked to smile at practice. She liked to laugh. “Gymnastics is supposed to be fun,” she’d say.
Eventually her performances got so good and her technical ability so precise that even Martha Karolyi gave up trying to rein her in. Martha was a taskmaster. She was forever pushing gymnasts to be better and better. She wasn’t much for laughs and smiles during training.
Simone, though … well, Simone could pretty much do whatever she wanted. The performance, and the results, spoke for her.
“Simone Biles is the biggest talent,” Martha said. “Combined with the very good discipline of work and great preparation for consistency, she is the best.”
By the time her routine ended, Simone was beaming. She rushed off the mat and hugged Coach Aimee, hugged Martha, and eventually wound up in a prolonged hug with Aly. Four years prior, she’d watched Aly win team gold for the Americans at the 2012 London Olympics. Simone considered Aly a role model.
At the time, there was no guarantee that Simone would ever make the senior national team, or World Championships, or these Olympics. She was fifteen and still hadn’t broken through. Now four years later, there they were, the two of them awaiting the final scores.
When the scores were presented, the pair hugged even tighter. Simone had scored a 15.933 on floor, the highest score by any competitor in any event that night. That meant she won all-around gold over Aly by a whopping 2.100 margin.
The 2.1 differential wasn’t just the largest margin of victory in the history of the Olympic women’s all-around. It was larger than the combined margins of victory of every Olympic all-around, 1980–2012. By comparison, Gabby Douglas won all-around gold in 2012 by just 0.259.
Simone had blown out the competition. She would climb atop the podium and receive her medal, and yet even with all that she’d accomplished, she said she didn’t feel a whole lot different.
“I’m still the same old Simone,” she said.
The road to gold hadn’t been easy. It had been full of twists and turns, laden with doubts and down periods.
She had made it, though. She had fulfilled her goal of reaching the Olympics.
There was also that goal she’d written down in her notebook.
“I will make you proud,” she had promised her mother.
Up in the stands, with her parents and siblings crying tears of happiness, there was no doubt she had done that, too.
Text copyright © 2020 by Dan Wetzel