Spring Awakening

The Greatest Gymnast in the World Is in Spring

Gymnastics phenom Simone Biles enjoys having a normal life...for a few more minutes.

By Michael Hardy January 4, 2015 Published in the January 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The greatest gymnast in the world trains at a nondescript warehouse sandwiched between a drapery wholesaler and a medical device company in a gritty, industrial area of Conroe that is also home to a nearby lawn care company, a building contractor, and a data recovery center. On a mild day last October, World Champions Centre, as the gym is known, was bustling with girls practicing on the uneven bars under the watchful eye of an instructor. Elsewhere, five teenage girls were running laps around the circumference of a large blue mat. High above them all, a jet engine–sized industrial fan rotated lazily. 

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Image: Todd Spoth

Among the runners was a diminutive 17-year-old who wore a black-and-yellow leotard, ankle socks, and an intense expression, and who—other than the fact that she led the pack—gave no evidence of distinction. That she had stood, less than two weeks earlier, atop the podium at the World Gymnastics Championships in Nanning, China, was not obvious. Simone Biles was not wearing the gold medal she’d received in the all-around, nor her gold medal from the team competition, nor the gold medals she’d received for her floor exercise and balance beam routines, nor the silver medal she earned in the vault, having lost the gold to North Korea’s Hong Un-Jong by five one-hundredths of a point. There was no sign in the gym announcing that Biles has won more world championship golds than any other gymnast in US history, nor that she is the first American woman to win back-to-back all-around titles since Shannon Miller two decades ago. 

But if the girls jogging behind Biles were intimidated, they didn’t show it. Later, while stretching out on the mat, they gossiped confidentially about boys and favorite brands of make-up. No one seemed awed by the fact that Biles has a floor exercise move named after her, that she was recently named a Sportswoman of the Year by the Women’s Sports Foundation at a fancy gala in New York City, or that they were training in a gym founded by Biles’s parents and temporarily based in Conroe until a 61,000-square-foot facility in Spring is completed later this year.

Whatever semblance of normalcy Biles’s life retains, however, is rapidly evaporating as the full extent of her talent becomes known. Gymnasts around the world watch with rapt attention when she performs her signature move, the Biles, which looks like a typical tumbling pass of two back handsprings leading to a backwards double layout, at least until Biles adds a half-twist at the last possible moment and lands facing forward. The Biles is just one reason that its creator, barring injury or a competitor yet to emerge, will be one of the favorites going into the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro next year, poised to take her place alongside countrywomen Mary Lou Retton and Gabby Douglas as one of the all-time greats. Retton and Douglas themselves have all but anointed Biles their successor. (Retton: “She may be the most talented gymnast I’ve seen in my life.” Douglas: “I’m simply in awe every time I watch her.”) Not bad for a girl from Spring who, according to her father, didn’t really get serious about gymnastics until four years ago. 

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Image: Todd Spoth

Biles spent the first three years of her life in Columbus, Ohio, where she was one of eight children born to a drug-addicted mother. All ended up in the foster care system, and two, Simone and her sister Adria, were adopted by their grandparents in Spring, Ron and Nellie Biles, who are now her legal parents—she calls them Mom and Dad. “They’re my number one support system,” she said. “I can go to them for anything. And they help me along the way to push me. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.” 

From the beginning, Biles was always “jumping, jumping, jumping,” Ron Biles remembered. “You walk in the door, she’d jump on you. We’d say, ‘Stand still, Simone!’” On a school field trip to Bannon’s Gymnastix in Cypress at the age of 6, Biles began spontaneously imitating the gymnasts’ moves, insisting that her parents enroll her at the gym, where her raw talent was immediately evident. 

“Simone was in a class that my mother was teaching,” remembered coach Aimee Boorman. “She said, ‘You have to come see this kid.’ I was like, ‘I’m busy, I can’t come look right now.’ Then I walked by later and I was like, ‘Whoa!’” Soon thereafter, Boorman became Biles’s personal coach, and has been ever since, even as the little girl who wouldn’t stand still went on to become a world champion. 

“She’s always had incredible air sense, which is what you need in this sport,” Boorman said. “She doesn’t crash very frequently. Other kids, you’ll just see them splat, or get lost in the air. That doesn’t happen with her.” Although Biles was always short—even now she’s just 4’9”—she has an explosiveness that continues to dazzle judges. She used to feel self-conscious about her muscular shoulders and legs; then, she watched the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where fellow American Shawn Johnson won four medals. “I like Shawn because she’s built like me, and I used to kind of hate my body shape,” Biles told me. 

In moving from Ohio to Texas, Biles had landed by complete coincidence in the epicenter of USA Gymnastics. Only an hour north, near Huntsville, is the legendary Karolyi Camp, founded in 1981 by Romanian émigrés Béla and Martha Károlyi and now the official training site of the US national team. Every month the team gathers there for five days of intensive training under the direction of Martha Károlyi, the national team coordinator.

Being an elite gymnast means focusing on training to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Biles hasn’t attended school regularly since 2011, instead receiving homeschooling at the gym each morning. She trains six days a week, usually from about 12:30 to 5:30, with Sundays off. Although she tries to keep up with former school friends, her life necessarily revolves around gymnastics. “She always wanted to go to regular school,” Ron Biles said, “but you have to attend school a certain number of days per year, and that was impossible with all the meets she goes to. I said, ‘I’m sorry, but if you want to be an elite athlete on the national team, it’s not going to work. I know it’s not a normal life, but you have to make a decision. Is it gymnastics or is it school?’ And she said gymnastics.” (Biles has verbally committed to attend UCLA after the 2016 Olympics.)

And so life became completely about the sport, measured not in years but in gymnastics milestones—the pivotal moment in 2011, for instance, when she finally managed to execute a Tkatchev in competition. Biles was on the uneven bars at a pre-nationals meet in Chicago when it happened. She swung forward with her legs together until she reached the top of the bar, at which point she simultaneously released it and split her legs. For a brief moment, Biles seemed to hover high above the gym, and this time her fingers didn’t miss the bar on the downswing, sending her body tumbling to the mat. This time, she held on. “It was, like, pure joy,” Biles said, smiling at the memory. “I freaked out when I caught it, because I had always fallen in the gym and had to get back up. So when I caught it I was like, ‘What do I do now?’”

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Image: Todd Spoth

Even as she has mastered nearly every challenge she has faced, new ones have presented themselves, not all of them confined to the gym. After the 2013 world championships in Belgium in which Biles won her first all-around gold medal, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito told an interviewer that she and her teammates had decided to “have our skin black so we can win too”—implying that the judges are biased in favor of African American gymnasts like Biles and Douglas. (Ferlito later tweeted an apology to Biles, which she accepted.) 

Her age could present a challenge too in the years ahead. In 2016, she will be 19, an age when many gymnasts are already past their prime. Had she tried out for the Olympic team in 2012, Biles might well have been named to the squad, but Boorman didn’t believe she was ready, so instead she watched the Fierce Five on television. And that wasn’t the only difficult decision the pair have faced. Some have questioned their choice to train heavily for the world championships leading up to 2016, fearing that Biles might peak too early. 

“Everybody talks about pacing when it comes to the Olympic cycle,” Boorman told me. “You don’t want to do too much too fast. But my theory was that 2013 might be the only year she gets to rise to the occasion, so why not go for it now? And if it is her only year, well, no one can ever take that world championship away from her. She’s going to be able to say that she was world champion in gymnastics in 2013, even if she doesn’t do anything else in gymnastics. Or, she could become one of the greatest ever—a legend.” 

Thanks to her rare, once-in-a-generation talents, not to mention those back-to-back world championships, Biles is certainly well on her way to becoming a legend. But everyone knows that it will take 2016 to cement her place in history. “If the Olympics were two weeks from now, I would say that she would do very well,” Boorman said. “But it’s hard to say—you’ve got juniors who are moving into the senior ranks. You don’t know how her body’s going to hold up over the next year and a half.” (Biles injured her shoulder at the beginning of 2014, forcing her to withdraw from the American Cup.) 

Meanwhile, Biles tries to stay focused, to not let herself worry about the Olympics or how much her life is about to change, to savor her last days of anonymity as just another teenager in Spring. “I try to avoid thinking about it because we have so many other things coming up first,” she said, smiling shyly as she listened to herself say the diplomatic thing. Almost instantly, though, the smile went away and she was back on script. “It’s a long way off,” Biles said, excusing herself and returning to practice. 

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