THE WOODLANDS, Texas — When the staring starts—or worse, the shrieking—Simone Biles used to think, Why are you guys freaking out? Who’s here? But now, three weeks after returning from Rio, her mind arrives at the answer sooner: It’s just me. Just Biles, the most dominant American gymnast of all time. Only the darling of the 2016 Games. A 19-year-old whose mere appearance melts fans’ minds. She gets it now. “I’m like, ‘Why guys? Come on.’ But I understand.”
Everything seemed normal after Biles first brought her five Olympic medals through customs in New York. Friends had told her, “America is going crazy over you guys,” but the Final Five’s reaction was, Whatever, it isn’t true, and they smoothly deplaned before leaving for their first post-Rio stop: the Empire State Building. There, the quintet was escorted to the exclusive 103rd floor. From that height, even the tourists on the general observation deck 17 floors below become microscopic. It was a serene moment—a chance to breath. But the trip also included time with a swarm of reporters who had the gymnasts up against the railing once they emerged in the public area. Another flock of paparazzi waited on the street.
Biles encountered her new reality again upon returning to Houston. She was prepared to face a throng of supporters in baggage claim, as she had following three straight wins at the world championships, but this time, the pack was at her gate. “I was like, These are a lot of people waiting for the next flight,” Biles recalled. “Then they started screaming.”
She was speechless—literally—after being called upon to address her supporters. “Hi guys, I’m Simone Biles,” she said with nervous giggle. “I can’t thank everyone and all of Houston for coming out to see me today and to welcome me from Rio. And I don’t know what else to say. I’m nervous!” Then, after a pause, “And I love you guys!”
An autograph signing was planned at her family’s gym (which has seen enrollment nearly double over the last month), but then calls started coming in from Mexico and Canada asking about restrictions regarding camping out for the two-hour event. Gym manager Adam Biles, Simone’s brother, had to cancel the whole thing. She still thought she’d be able to go to the Apple Store and get a new phone, but she eventually required mall security’s help to get out in time for a doctor’s appointment.
Of course, Biles has done her fair share of freaking out as well. In Rio, she hid her face when Zac Efron walked into the room and nearly fell over after he kissed her on the cheek. When she was blessed with the honorific “My Houston Girl” by Beyonce at the MTV Video Music Awards? “I thought I was going to die, oh my gosh,” she says. Biles has gotten a selfie with Kim Kardashian and hugged Channing Tatum on Ellen, too. Still, she treasured her time with teammates atop the Empire State Building as much as any of those run-ins, given it was a rare moment alone with them since they first paraded into the Rio Olympic Arena for team all-around qualifications.
Before that event, Biles had been sitting on a bench in the building’s bathroom. Aly Raisman turned to her and asked, “Are you O.K.?” “No,” Biles responded. “Are you?” Even though Raisman had won two golds in 2012, her answer was the same, “No.” In fact, she thought she might vomit. The two girls sat and let the emotion of the moment wash over them before agreeing that they would go out and perform just like they had practiced. The U.S. went on to win the event by more than eight points, and neither Raisman nor Biles flinched in the limelight. The confidence they showed that day has carried over to their post-Olympic lives, particularly during red carpet interviews and morning show appearances. But Olympic achievement does not always guarantee post-Olympic success. Remember Biles’s struggle to produce a speech in Houston? “It’s still different,” she says. “If you put us in front of a crowd to walk on a four-inch beam, we got it. But if you put us in front of a crowd to speak, we get nervous. It doesn’t make sense. This is a new learning experience.”
She was ready to regain a bit of normalcy last week when she traveled to Colorado to train for the Tour of Gymnastics Champions, which begins Thursday. After that ends in November, Biles is hoping for a real vacation. Her last two weeks, traveling from New York to Houston to New York to Los Angeles to Houston to Colorado, hardly count.
It’s ironic to think having four medals placed around your neck might take a weight off your shoulders, and it’s not quite accurate, either. Not for Biles at least. She’s spent much of her post-Rio time living out of a suitcase. Her visit to church last Sunday was extended 45 minutes when her fellow parishioners surrounded her. The priest ultimately got involved. She consciously tries to enjoy each moment in the whirlwind that's followed her historic performance in Rio, but doing so is not always easy. It was particularly tough Tuesday when a hack of the World Anti-Doping Agency revealed aspects of her confidential medical file.
By the time Biles went to the VMAs two weeks ago, she was beginning to understand her new reality. When she slipped going down the stairs in heels that night, she knew immediately that someone must have been recording her and that the video would eventually blow up online. It did. She retweeted it.
At a press conference around the same time, she was asked about her reaction to families naming their daughters Simone because of her success. Biles remained poised while answering—“It’s pretty cool”—and afterward, under her breath, let out a single word: “Crazy.”
Then she took the next question.