“I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps,” Simone Biles told reporters after winning the women’s individual all-round title in artistic gymnastics at Rio 2016. “I’m the first Simone Biles.”
That statement, in truth, fails to do justice to the unprecedented level of success Biles has accumulated in under a decade of professional competition. At just 24 years of age, she is the most decorated American gymnast ever, the third most successful of all time, and has more World Championship golds than anyone who has competed in the sport.
So imperious has she been across all events, that even her fellow competitors have assumed her unbeatable. So unrivalled in ability, that four gymnastic moves have been named in honour of her, simply because no other rival could fathom attempting them.
Yet, aside from her generational athletic talent and her interminable desire to push the boundaries of this ability –– there is also a courageous, iconic and inspirational activist for good. Biles has spoken out about sexual abuse, endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement, and raised awareness of mental health disorders.
As the Tokyo Olympics looms closer, Biles’s incomparable influence on gymnastics has already cemented her as one of the finest athletes of her generation. A remarkable and prodigious rise for someone still so young, who has already overcome such adversity.
The rise to stardom
Initially raised by a mother battling addiction and forced to contend with being moved in and out of foster care, Biles was eventually adopted by her grandparents aged three. Reflecting in a CNN commentary, she credits who she describes as her “new family” for turning her life around and giving her the purpose, the passion and the right of passage to fulfil a career in gymnastics.
“Although I was young when my foster care ordeal began, I remember how it felt to be passed off and over-looked. Like nobody knew me or wanted to know me. Like my talents didn't count, and my voice didn't matter...finding a family made me feel like I mattered.”
It was a day-care field trip to Bannon’s Gymnastix in Houston, that a then six-year-old Biles was first exhorted into pursuing the sport. It was here that she would remain for the next eleven years –– guided, mentored and supported by her coach, Aimee Boardman.
By the age of 13, Biles was dedicating 16 hours a week to gymnastics training, but as the distant dream of turning professional began to morph into an achievable reality, she realised the need to push even more. Her commitment to the cause was clear as Biles began homeschooling in a bid to commit more hours to the gym –– a decision she admits was tough on her mentally as a young teenager.
“I was just so lonely all the time,” she told The Undefeated. “I missed all my friends at school, but in the end, it worked out.”
Indeed, less than two years after committing to homeschooling, Biles’ devotion to the pursuit of excellence was rewarded, as she made her senior international debut at the 2013 American Cup, replacing London 2012 Olympic gold medallist, Kyla Ross.
As Biles dazzled with her exuberant personality, her consistency, and her all-round ability, she hasn’t looked back since. The hours spent disconnected from normality growing up were ultimately worth it in the end.
As she told ABC News in 2015, “I was missing out on public school and going to football games, prom or homecomings; but I've been to three World Championships...so I think it’s like a win-win.”
The unbeatable athlete
Biles’s breakthrough on the global stage came at the 2013 World Championships in Antwerp, as she won gold in both the floor and the individual all-around events. These triumphs sparked a wave of irrepressible dominance. She won four gold medals in Nanning the following year, four more at Glasgow 2015 and a further four in 2016 at her first Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
A deserved break in 2017 did little to hamper her superiority on return. Biles won yet another four World Championship golds at Doha in 2018, before claiming a record five gold medals at Stuttgart in 2019 –– making her America’s most decorated gymnast, aged 21.
Such has been her record at major gymnastic events, that many have dubbed Biles as invincible. In a career that has spanned more than seven years at the elite level, the American has amassed 19 World Championship gold medals, 10 more than Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina in second place.
Considering the average senior gymnastics career ordinarily lasts for no more than one Olympic cycle, Biles’s record in competition is no less impressive than some of the all-time women’s sporting greats. Consider the period of Billie Jean King’s supremacy, the era of Lindsey Vonn’s unparalleled success –– we’re now living in the age of Simone Biles.
Even her fellow challengers have lauded her genius. Three-time Olympic gold medallist Aly Raisman, who captained the American side at the 2016 Rio Games, admitted after the competition that a silver medal essentially made you the best in the world because Biles simply doesn’t count. She told Eurosport:
No one goes into this thinking they can beat Simone. I'm sure most people don't go into it thinking they can beat Usain Bolt either, so it's kind of the same thing.
Despite widespread acclaim from fans, coaches and competitors alike, Biles has never been one to acknowledge the praise. Her humility and scale of achievements are emphasised in equal measure by her response in a question and answer session, transcribed by Vogue magazine.
Asked about how many medals she has collected in her lifetime, Biles joked that she should probably memorise the answer, but that it keeps changing.
“I think it’s at 25, but I’m not really sure,” she conceded. “I would have to google it.” The correct figure is 30 medals –– admittedly a hard figure to keep track of when these medals were obtained at such an exponential rate, but further indicative that the American is continually enhancing her legacy.
It’s more than just winning that makes Biles so great. Rather, it's the manner in which she competes –– repeatedly redefining the boundaries of the sport as she adds more skills and more tricks to her boundless repertoire.
Not content with merely beating the competition, Biles leaves her opponents in awe of her dominance.
So great was the difficulty of her moves at Rio in 2016, that the gap between Raisman and Biles in the all-round event was more than two points. So gravity-defying were her skills at Stuttgart in 2019, that the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) was forced to re-evaluate the scoring system to discourage athletes from attempting moves they were incapable of executing.
In Germany, Biles’s double-twisting double somersault off the balance beam was intentionally undermarked –– a decision justified by the Women’s Technical Committee who said in a statement:
“There is added risk in the landing of double saltos for beam dismounts, including a potential landing on the neck.
“Reinforcing, there are many examples...where decisions have been made to protect the gymnasts and preserve the direction of the discipline.”
This is the equivalent of giving Wilma Rudolph a two-second time penalty for others to catch up; making Serena Williams play left-handed or forcing Anika Sorenstam to play off a tee 100 yards behind the rest of the field.
“They do not like that Simone has made a mockery of the open-ended Code of Points,” stressed GymCastic podcast host Spencer Barnes to USA Today. “She’s kind of broken the system they created.”
It is easier to side with the FIG when analysing how frequently Biles transforms the realms of possibility in the sport. A total of four skills have been named in her honour because she is the only gymnast to ever attempt them.
These moves include a floor exercise routine, balance beam dismount and a twist on the vault –– all named The Biles. Another floor move, consisting of a “triple-double” with three twists and two flips was later named the Biles II.
Speaking to reporters after first attempting the “triple-double” at the 2019 World Championships, Biles said:
“I feel like putting my name on a skill is really rewarding, just because it’ll be in the code forever.”
Biles has also teased another new move –– a triple-twisting double tuck, which she’s yet to try in competition. With the Tokyo Olympics on the horizon, perhaps her four eponymous skills will soon become five.
A voice for justice
An indelible trailblazer for gymnastics, Biles has also spearheaded change away from the sport, speaking out against wrongdoing and raising awareness of important societal issues.
In an interview with Vogue magazine, Biles spoke of why she so often speaks out when “something bad” is going on in the world.
“Personally, for me, I don’t think of it as an obligation. I think of it as an honour to speak for the less fortunate and for the voiceless. I also feel like it gives them power.”
It’s for these reasons that Biles chose to reveal the horrific abuse suffered by former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, who has since been sentenced to life imprisonment for sexual assault charges.
Given the stigma around sexual abuse and the inability of many sufferers to disclose their ordeals, Biles’s bravery in coming forward is beyond courageous. She is the only Olympic gymnast to disclose her abuse and carry on competing at the elite level. Even now, she continues to hold USA Gymnastics to account wherever she feels they have failed.
Biles has also voiced her experiences with racism, sharing her support for Black Lives Matter, and accentuating the need for change. Recounting her own experiences on the Today Show, the 24-year-old exemplified one clear message.
It doesn’t matter what you look like. You can strive for greatness and you can be great.
Her advocacy for other moral causes is equally compelling. Biles is consciously specific about her endorsements –– she works with Mattress Firm because the organisation provides help to foster kids, while her “NoCompetiton” hashtag, which urges people not to conform to beauty standards, was in response to trolls repeatedly shaming her body.
This innate mentality to not only be the best athlete but to be the best person, is why Simone Biles is a game changer.
During the Super Bowl weekend in February, Biles’ name was trending on social media among a surplus of all-time sporting greats as fans rushed to name the greatest athlete of all time.
Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods were typically nominated, but Biles’ name was also omnipresent. As we have come to expect, the gymnast played down the comparisons, thanking her fans for fighting her cause, but dismissing the idea that she was in the conversation.
“You guys are honestly so sweet to go to war for me, but honestly [I’m] just in awe to be thought of in the same category as these greats,” she wrote on Twitter.
Needless to say, Biles also rushed to champion more women in the debate. “There are so many women I can think of who belong in this photo yet there are none,” she replied to an image posted by Sports Center.
Rapinoe, Rousey, Rudolph –– all are names that should unequivocally be considered in this category. Yet, as much as these women have done for their respective sports, few will ever be such a bastion for equality, a boundary-breaking innovator or an indomitable competitor as Biles herself.
As the greatest of all time debate promises to wage on, many more athletes will continue to stake a claim, both past, present and future. But, as the next breed of gymnasts begin to emerge and fans have new names to idolise –– there will only ever be one Simone Biles.