- She’s the world’s best gymnast on the world’s best team, and she carried the U.S. to new Olympic heights. No wonder Simone Biles can’t stop smiling.
This story appears in the August 22, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
Minutes after the women’s all-around final last Thursday, Ron Biles was directing traffic. “Make sure you get a good look,” he told a group of 17 friends and relatives in Section 112 of the Rio Olympic Arena—amateur photographers all. As his daughter Simone waved and clasped her newly acquired gold medal, he told them, “You might not see something like this again.”
They might not. We might not. In a sport where success is often measured in milliseconds, Biles’s relatively prolonged run of dominance is unprecedented. She clinched the all-around championship by two full points on Aug. 11 with a floor routine to the beat of Brazilian samba that was equal parts celebration and, given her status atop the sport, coronation. After three straight world all-around crowns, the gold medal in Rio made her the first woman to sweep the major all-around titles in an Olympic quadrennium.
If Biles in Rio seemed defined by her giggly disposition and by flips sprung from catapults, her family can’t remember her any other way. At dinner after the all-around final, her brother, Ron Jr., 32, recalled the days he’d volunteer his arm for his sister’s training. “She’d want me to catch her when she bounced off things,” he said. “She was two or three, and she used to use my arm for pull-ups. She’d be smiling and laughing. If I stopped, she’d make me straighten it and hold it for her again. I said, ‘Simone, that’s not normal.’”
Earlier in the week, Biles’s coach, Aimee Boorman, recalled seeing her for the first time as a six-year-old and realizing, “She had better balance on her hands than the other girls did on their feet. She’d have a conversation and hold a handstand at the same time.”
Every story about Biles evokes a smile. On their way to dinner last Thursday, the Biles family, most wrapped in flags or decked out in red, white and blue hats, scarves and pants, walked through the Olympic Park. They passed an auto sponsor’s kiosk where car hoods opened and closed to the beat of carnival music. Several family members began moving to the rhythm, which happened to stop after they passed. The Biles family shows up and even the cars dance.
Simone’s underlying stability comes from Ron, an Air Force veteran and retired air traffic controller, and his wife, Nellie, a retired nurse. Simone’s maternal grandparents, they adopted her and her sister, Adria, then six and four years old respectively, because the girls’ biological mother, Shanon, was battling addiction. They nurtured Simone’s energy, encouraged her innate decency and taught her, in Nellie’s words, to “stay grounded but reach for the sky.” In gymnastics that’s an apt metaphor for Simone’s solid landings after parachuting out of her dizzying tumbling runs—including the Biles, a double layout backflip with a half twist that she makes look like a skip in the park.
Biles also exhibits a poise and brio that have eluded many of her countrywomen during the past two decades. Four U.S. women have won the all-around title at the last four Olympics, but only Biles has been saddled with the presumption going in that she would win gold. Carly Patterson, the Olympic champion in 2004, was only third at the U.S. trials that year. Beijing champ Nastia Liukin was second at trials. Gabby Douglas was runner-up at nationals in ’12 and then won in London. Before Biles six U.S. women had combined for seven world all-around titles since 1991. None won that title at the Olympics.
“Simone fights pressure with humor,” says Boorman. “When some other girls have to wait to go up for their routines, they want to be left alone. Simone wants you to tell her a joke. I wouldn’t do that with anyone else.”
Asked about the burden of high expectations, Biles replied, “The biggest challenge is ... O.K., there’s no biggest challenge. The hardest challenge now would be getting sleep, because we’re so excited.” She then pointed to the pieces of the carrying case for her medal, which broke when she dropped it. “I’m just a klutz,” she said.
As calm as Ron is, Nellie is a, yes, nervous Nellie. She arrives at arenas hours before competition begins. “Normally I’m the first one at the gate,” she says. Before the all-around, Nellie didn’t realize that Ron had put his ticket in her bag, and her phone had no service. When Simone couldn’t reach her on the phone, she texted frowning emojis to her while Ron paced outside looking for a ticket. Finally he spotted a USA Gymnastics official who gave him hers.
The outcome of the team event was an even surer bet than the all-around. The U.S. lapped the field, finishing 8.209 points ahead of second-place Russia. The gap from the silver medalists to last-place Brazil was 4.601 points. The U.S. team’s lowest score in the 12 routines was a 14.800 (from Biles on bars), higher than the Russians’ average score of 14.724. Said Russia’s Aliya Mustafina, the all-around bronze medalist, “The Americans compete with themselves.”
The U.S. women won nine medals in the gym. Besides the team gold, Aly Raisman finished second to Biles in the all-around and on the floor exercise, Biles won gold on the vault and floor and bronze on beam, Madison Kocian won silver on the uneven bars and Laurie Hernandez took silver on the beam. Beyond their preeminence, there is the likable aesthetic and comportment of this U.S. team: multiethnic, cheerful, complementary in skills and temperament. As Biles waited for her final all-around score, she embraced Raisman, who was about to drop to silver at the announcement of Biles’s score.
At 22, Raisman is the team captain and has the moniker of Grandma less for her age than for a dedication that gets her to sleep by nine every night after a glass of milk. She and Biles were joined in a group hug by Hernandez, Kocian and Douglas, who insisted that she preferred the team’s Rio victory to her gold medal from the individual all-around competition in London. “If you have family celebrations,” Douglas said, “would you rather sing and dance by yourself or with your sisters?”