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Once a week or so, the greatest gymnast of all time quits gymnastics. Simone Biles flips off the balance beam or twists off the uneven bars or rises from the mat after grinding through another routine and sighs. “I’m over this,” she declares, aloud or in a text. “I’m not doing this anymore.”
Everyone in her life has grown used to these moments.
“O.K., Simone,” her friends, family and coaches tell her. “You can quit.”
Retirement usually lasts about 10 seconds. “Well, I don’t really want to,” Biles decides.
The first time she said it, she actually meant it: On March 24, 2020, Biles was in the locker room of her gym outside Houston, putting on her grips to work on her uneven bars routine, when her phone dinged. It was her older brother Ron, confirming her fears: The International Olympic Committee had just announced that, because of the coronavirus, it was postponing the Tokyo Games until the summer of 2021. Biles burst into tears. She was done, she told her training partner, Jordan Chiles. “I just don’t know if I can do this for another year,” Biles said.
Biles, now 24, had been racing time, trying to force one last transcendent performance from a body that, after 30 world championship and Olympic medals, is ready to find a different career. Now that 4' 8" frame would have to endure an additional 12 months of pounding.
Biles spent the first few days of lockdown in mourning. She had never felt more prepared to perform—and now, as she weighed her future, she did not know when her next competition would be, or whether the next Games would even happen. She had always planned to retire after Tokyo. Now she had no idea when her (young) life’s work would end and the rest of her life would begin. She was alone in her Spring, Texas, house. Her parents live just minutes away, but she couldn’t even hug them. She did not have a goal or other people to distract her. She just had her thoughts. Some of them surprised her.
“I kind of let myself go through the emotions,” she recalls. “Sad, mad, angry, pissed off, hysterical—all of the phases. And that’s the first time in my life I’ve ever felt the emotions rather than somebody coming up to me and telling me, ‘Hey, it’s gonna be O.K.’ I got to relish in all of those emotions and phases myself rather than people telling me, ‘Hey, it’s gonna be O.K. You should be fine.’ It’s like, Bro, no, I don’t want to be fine. I don’t have to be fine. I can be pissed off for now. I can be mad. I can be angry. I can be joyful, you know? So it was actually really nice because it was the first time in my life that’s ever happened.”
Biles thought about the extra year of training for a competition she had already dominated, and she wondered, Why am I even doing this? She had never really asked herself that question. It took this year, when time stopped, when her world disappeared, when her body ached to quit but her mind wouldn’t let her, to find the answer.
Biles stood atop the podium in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, beaming as she held up four fingers. She had just earned gold in the floor exercise, upping the haul from her first Games to four gold medals and one bronze. The world saw what she had won. Only she knew how much the sport had taken from her.
She barely enjoyed those Olympics because she was so focused on pleasing others. “Everybody had such high expectations for me that at the end of the day, I feel like it didn’t matter what I did, as long as I satisfied everybody around me,” Biles says. In the balance beam final, she missed the landing on a front tuck and grabbed the beam—an automatic 0.5-point deduction. She finished third. “I was so happy that I even medaled because of the mistake that I had,” Biles says, “but I felt so ashamed because people were pissed off that I ruined their [headline] of five gold medals.”
Biles’s Olympic clock has always been a tick off. She was born three months too late to have been eligible for London in 2012. (She doesn’t think she was emotionally ready, anyway: “I would have probably got last place and never been invited back to the national team ever again.”) In 2020, even before the delay, she would have been an adult in a teenager’s sport. Only two female gymnasts have won gold at 24 or older since 1972, and neither in the top prize that Biles is eyeing: the individual all-around. In the last 50 years, the oldest to win that event was 20-year-old Simona Amanar, of Romania, in 2000. Biles tries to outfox time with Epsom-salt baths, daily naps and frequent physical therapy, and she skips outings with friends that might make her sore the next day.
“It hurts,” she said back in April, laughing in an airy Houston warehouse after her Sports Illustrated cover shoot. “Today I was on floor and I was doing triple doubles, and even when I punch hard, that hurts my body. I’m doing the correct punch, but it just hurts. I didn’t land short. I didn’t land funky. I just do hard skills, and that just hurts.”
But in 2016 she was 19, the ideal age for a female gymnast. Rio should have been a celebration, the peak of her life to that point. Instead she saw it as a peek over a terrifying cliff. “At 19, you win the Olympics,” she says. “What else is there?”
There was something else, something not even she fully understood when she kissed her gold medal on the podium.
Like most top U.S. gymnasts, Biles had been treated by longtime national team doctor Larry Nassar. Less than a month after Rio, two gymnasts told the Indianapolis Star that Nassar had sexually abused them. Five months later, three former gymnasts told 60 Minutes the same thing. Eight months after that, Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney tweeted that he had assaulted her during treatments, too. Maroney’s tweet had violated the $1.25 million nondisclosure agreement she had with USA Gymnastics. (It later said it would not enforce the NDA.) USAG president Steve Penny resigned in March 2017 and was later indicted on charges of tampering with evidence that implicated Nassar.
Nassar pleaded guilty in November 2017 to 10 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor. By the time his sentencing hearing began, on Jan. 16, 2018, more than 120 women and girls had said he abused them. Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in state prison; that time will begin once he is finished serving 60 years in federal prison for child-pornography charges. Michigan State, which also employed and enabled Nassar, reached a $500 million settlement in 2018 with 332 of his survivors; he is thought to be the most prolific sexual predator in the history of sports.
As the reckoning unfolded, Biles barred her family from discussing it, which made them worry she might have something to reveal. Slowly she began to think differently about the treatments she had received from Nassar at the Karolyi Ranch, 70 miles north of Houston. As she read more about what other gymnasts had endured, she realized their stories matched hers. The afternoon before Nassar’s sentencing, Biles tweeted that she, too, had survived his abuse.
“It is impossibly difficult to relive these experiences,” she wrote. “And it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work toward my dream of competing in Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused.”
After years of pleasing other people, she spoke up for herself, and she quickly discovered how much weight her words carried. Three days after she released her statement, USAG severed ties with the Karolyi Ranch. That August, Biles criticized new USAG president Kerry Perry for her silence on the issue. Three weeks later, Perry, also under pressure from the USOC after hiring a Nassar defender to a high-level position, resigned. USAG replaced Perry with Mary Bono, who just weeks before starting the job had tweeted a photo of herself coloring over a Nike logo, apparently in response to the company’s work with Colin Kaepernick. After the post surfaced, Biles (who also had a Nike deal) remarked on Twitter, “don’t worry, it’s not like we needed a smarter usa gymnastics president or any sponsors or anything.” Four days later Bono resigned, too.
Ten days before the Olympics were postponed, USAG cele-
brated Biles’s 23rd birthday with a tweet: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the most decorated gymnast of all time, @simonebiles! We know you will only continue to amaze us and make history!” Biles quote-tweeted it: “how about you amaze me and do the right thing . . . have an independent investigation.”
Then came the pandemic. That day in March 2020, as she fiddled with her grips, she briefly intended to walk away. She had signed up for four more years of this. She had not signed up for five. Another year of torturing her body. Another year under the aegis of USAG. “I was just so heartbroken,” Biles says now.
She feared the weight would crush her.
The first thing Biles learned about herself in lockdown is that she is terrible at lockdown. “I was so bad at everything everybody tried,” she laments. “Then it just started pissing me off, because everyone’s like, Oh, I’m gonna pick up painting, and was great at that, and I was like, Forget it. I’m not even going to go to Michaels, because I’m gonna waste money, and it’s just not going to be good.”
In many ways, it was an uneventful year full of uneventful days. She watched Tiger King. She ate dinner with her family over Zoom. She participated in the handstand challenge, a series of viral videos in which people tried to put on a T-shirt while upside down. (Because she is Simone Biles, she instead took off her sweatpants.)
Before the world stopped, she had felt flush with momentum, coming off a five-gold performance at the 2019 world championships in Stuttgart, Germany. But after the break she struggled to find a rhythm as she worked out alone with her coaches or in small groups. In April she described herself as being stuck in a “big hold.”
She said, “I don’t feel as on top of the world as I did last year.” Still, the extra time gave her a chance to perfect the Yurchenko double pike, which no woman had ever performed in competition until she landed it at the GK U.S. Classic in May.
And she spent a lot of time thinking. “You gotta be stuck with yourself,” she says. “That’s, like, so annoying.” She already knew why she dominated gymnastics: She is all controlled power. She explodes through the air, upending her body and the viewer’s mind, then sticks the landing. Now she wondered: Who am I?
Gymnastics, for all the stunning creativity and superhuman feats of its practitioners, is at its core a sport of meticulous adherence to rules. Biles has tested the limits of physics and of imagination, but she has always done so within parameters laid out by others. The pandemic gave her a chance to make her own choices. She found she enjoyed that.
When her Nike contract expired in 2020, she declined to renew it and instead signed with Athleta, where she plans to design her own line. She had already decided not to take part in a USAG-sponsored post-Olympics event circuit; she continued planning her own, the Gold Over America Tour (GOAT, appropriately enough). She bought a house, all modern furnishings and clean lines (Chiles calls it “an L.A. house, but in Houston”) that’s diametrically opposed to the more traditional aesthetic of her parents, Nellie and Ron. “Even now they come over and they’re like, This isn’t the style of my house I would choose,” she says. “I’m like, But it’s not your house. It’s mine.”
Biles tweeted and gave interviews in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ people, Asian Americans. She encouraged her followers to vote for Joe Biden. She continued to push for accountability from USAG.
“I feel like I found my voice a little bit more,” she says. “That’s also scary because people expect you to speak out, and sometimes it can be triggering, it can be hard, but I also know I’m helping other people out there, and that’s why I do it.”
Last summer she ended her relationship with her boyfriend of three years, former gymnast Stacey Ervin Jr., and she began flirting over Instagram DMs with Jonathan Owens, a Texans safety who had caught her eye. He had never heard of her. “I saw she had a lot of followers, so I figured she must be good,” he says now. (Her friends joke that Owens must not have turned the TV on at all in 2016.) This, too, was a choice: She wanted to open her world beyond gymnastics. She ended up with someone who is still learning the difference between a layout and a pike. They argue sometimes about whose sport is more difficult.
“He drives me insane with this damn question,” Biles says. “Because gymnastics is obviously harder! I could go out there and learn how to throw a football, and he’s like, Every time they get hit, it’s like a car crash! I’m like, You’re literally a safety. You don’t get hit. If you get hit, you’re not doing your job.” (Biles is still learning the nuances of his sport, as well.)
Because they have been together only during this era of isolation, Owens, 25, still does not fully understand her life. She finds this mostly refreshing and occasionally exasperating. He did not quite believe she was famous until he started seeing one of her Uber Eats commercials playing at the Texans’ facility. In March they went out for ice cream, and a few little girls noticed them.
“Oh my God!” they yelped. “It’s Simone Biles!”
“They know who you are?” Owens said.
“I’ve been telling you!” Biles said. “A lot of people know who I am!”
Owens may not have understood that Biles is famous, but he does have a sense of what an elite athlete’s life requires. They often watch TV at night in his-and-hers NormaTec recovery boots, and he arranges his offseason days in part around her training schedule. He also knows what she needs to hear.
In March, when Biles traveled to Indianapolis for the 2021 national team camp, she admitted to Owens that she was nervous. Four skills have been named after her, and for years she has exerted the kind of dominance that makes opponents agree that second place is a gold medal in the non-Biles division. The International Gymnastics Federation artificially suppresses the difficulty scores on some of her skills so that other gymnasts are not tempted to imitate her and break their necks. But after a year without competition, everyone seemed to be watching her for any sign of a stumble. Anxiety occasionally creeps up on her, she says.
Owens still does not know all the details of her reign, but he knows her. “I’m like, You know who you are, right?” Owens says now. “It’s great to be humble, but sometimes I just tell her, Realize what you’ve accomplished. . . . Just be who you are.”
In February, the Biles family planned a trip to Belize, where Nellie was born and where they all hold dual citizenship. The parents had been vaccinated, and everyone took a COVID-19 test. Nellie’s came back positive, though she had no symptoms. Everybody canceled the trip . . . except Simone and Owens.
“We were like, ‘Mom’s not going. You can’t go to Belize,’ ” says her older brother Adam. “She’s like, ‘Why can’t I go to Belize?’ ‘Well, [we’re] not gonna be there.’ ‘I know. But I will.’ ”
A few weeks later she and Owens drank cocktails on the beach and rode jet skis and swam with sharks. Family members or coaches or both had chaperoned all her previous trips. This was the first adult vacation of her life.
In gymnast years Biles is a grandmother. In human years, she’s not quite sure what she is. She calls her father for help with her alarm system and only within the past year did she learn how to use a dishwasher. But she is also the friend most likely to make sure others get home safely—and whom they text to report they’ve made it. She spent most of the pandemic trying and failing to record a TikTok. And she and her 22-year-old sister, Adria, often bicker over Adria’s youthful abbreviations. “Can you just type it out?” Simone says now. “You could have just typed out thank you instead of ty. You guys are lazy.”
That duality might be the most 24-year-old thing about her. For the first time since she was a tween whose routines were so mind-bending that judges of other events would turn and gape, she is just like everyone else her age, straddling youth and adulthood. “I try not to be so hard on myself because I’m like, O.K., if I were in school and graduated, I feel like I’d be struggling with them, trying to find a job, trying to find out who I am, so it kind of eases my mind,” Biles says. “We’re just all struggling to find out who we are and what we’re good at, rather than what society tells us what we need to do.”
She dreams of her own TV show. “She’s good in front of a camera,” notes her best friend, former gymnast Rachel Moore. (Indeed, Biles has done so many interviews that during her SI cover shoot, she reminds the video team to capture room tone—15 seconds of silence that can later be used in editing.) She knows she wants to work with foster kids in some capacity, in a nod to her own upbringing. (Her parents adopted her and Adria.) But she is young enough that she could go to medical school, or become an accountant, or study piano. “If everything happened the way it was supposed to and she was turned loose to the world last year, I have no idea where she’d be right now,” Adam says. “A year later, maturity has really kicked in. She’s grown as a person and had time to think about things. It’s interesting, this past year, because some people went stir-crazy and were like, Oh my God, I have to get out. Others took that time to do more self-reflection: I’m going to enjoy this time. She did a little bit of the stir-crazy thing first and then was like, O.K., this is how things are. O.K., cool. She was content with it, and she got to really like herself more.”
Gymnastics steals your childhood and leaves you unprepared for adulthood. “It sucks when you reach your peak at 23, 24, you know?” Biles says. “Because it’s all downhill from there.”
As it turns out, her life’s work is not becoming the greatest gymnast of all time. It’s everything that comes next.
“That’s a big task,” she says. “Making sure it goes up
The pandemic helped Biles reconcile her gymnastics age and her human age. When the Olympics were postponed, all she could think about was having to endure an extra year of training. Now she also sees the benefit of an extra year to prepare for the rest of her life. Stuck with herself, she found fresh answers to her questions. Why is she even doing this? For herself, finally. And who is she? She is powerful. And she is in control.