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A Flying Start

Sept. 08, 2014
Sept. 08, 2014

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Sept. 8, 2014

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A Flying Start

America's latest teen star, Simone Biles, has vaulted over past challenges to land gracefully on the international scene

WITH HER LANDSLIDE victory at the U.S. championships in Pittsburgh last month, Simone Biles confirmed her status as gymnastics' It girl, a distinction that sometimes seems as fleeting as an Amanar vault. Yet to measure the buzz around Biles, consider these remarks last week from her acolytes. "She may be the most talented gymnast I've seen in my life," said one. "I'm simply in awe every time I watch her," said another. Those words might be dismissed as hyperbole had they not come from Olympic champions Mary Lou Retton and Gabby Douglas, respectively.

This is an article from the Sept. 8, 2014 issue Original Layout

Iconic figures such as Retton, the gold medalist in 1984, and Douglas, the reigning Olympic champion, see something special in the 17-year-old Biles, who won the world all-around title in Antwerp, Belgium, last fall and will defend her crown in Nanning, China, next month. "She makes the hardest skills look beautiful. And she's keeping the tradition alive," says Douglas, referring to the run that has seen a U.S. woman win the all-around title at every Olympics since 2004 (Carly Patterson in Athens, Nastia Liukin in Beijing). Biles's first taste of the fame that goes with being America's top gymnast came last year, at the U.S. Classic in Chicago. "Some girls came up to me for pictures," Biles says. "I thought they had no idea who I was."

Biles was three when, in March 2000, she moved from her home in Columbus, Ohio, into foster care. Her mother, Shanon, had, according to Shanon's parents, Ron and Nellie Biles, a substance-abuse problem that rendered her unable to care for her children, and Simone's biological father was not involved in raising her, according to Ron.

Simone returned to Shanon's care periodically, but never for very long. "We thought things would get better," says Nellie. "They were not better." SI's repeated attempts to reach Shanon were unsuccessful.

On Christmas Eve 2002, Simone and her sister, Adria, moved in with Ron and Nellie in Spring, Texas, and the girls have lived with them since. In '03 they adopted the children. Under the steadying influence of Ron, a retired Air Force master sergeant and air-traffic controller, and Nellie, a registered nurse, Simone thrived.

When Simone was six, Nellie took her to a day-care center in Spring. On a field trip the kids visited a gym where Aimee Boorman was teaching gymnastics. Someone pulled her aside. "You need to see this new girl," she was told. Boorman was floored. Surrounded by older girls who had taken gymnastics for years, Simone copied every move she saw. "She was absolutely fearless," says Boorman, who has been Biles's coach since that day. "She was also what I call an 'air-sense savant.' She had an innate feel for what her body could do once it got off the ground."

In her first year with Boorman, Simone watched a girl perform a standing back tuck, a difficult skill. "I can do that," she told Boorman. "I thought, No you can't. Not yet. Before I finished the thought, she did it," says Boorman.

"[Gymnastics] showed her she belonged," Ron says. "If she had doubts about things, she could trust herself and her abilities." That mettle was tested last summer, in her first year as a senior gymnast, when she aggravated bone spurs in her left ankle at the U.S. Classic, a month before nationals, where she struggled. U.S. program director Marta Karolyi saw miscues from the 4'9" dynamo but also noted her explosive tumbling and boundless potential. "She made the biggest skills look easy, like nothing," Karolyi says. "I told her, 'Just clean up the details and forget the last mistake.' "

Biles doesn't forget. She is more likely to post clips of falls and errors to her Twitter page than shots from awards ceremonies. "You don't see her retweet something great," says Ron. "It's like there's no lesson in something she's already done."

In Antwerp, Biles rallied to win the all-around final with a stellar floor routine. Her second tumbling run—a round-off flip-flop to two feet, double layout with a half turn out—is a pass Boorman helped create for her. It leaves watchers wondering how she rotates so quickly, adding a half twist and landing facing forward. The move is known as "the Biles."

Biles has endeared herself to fans by being just as facile online, tweeting, "dear summer, please slow down" and "today im feeling cloudy with a chance of sass," and by posting photos of pizza, her guilty pleasure. Before each competition she goes to church and lights a candle to St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes. She has an easy rapport with fans and will often seek out the quiet girl, hiding in the back of a herd of autograph seekers, to pass along the flowers she has received at an awards ceremony.

Biles showed her grace after Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito said in a postmeet interview that she and her teammates should "make our skin black because then maybe we will win too." Says Biles, "She tweeted an apology to me afterward, and I accepted it. I've had too many good things happen to me in gymnastics to worry about that."

What will be the next good thing for her in gymnastics, a sport in which sustained excellence is a rarity? Since 1991, starting with Kim Zmeskal, seven U.S. women, including Biles, have won a total of eight world all-around titles, but none won an Olympic all-around gold medal. Over the last 10 years, 10 different gymnasts have been the highest-placing U.S. woman at a world championship or Olympics. Only two members of the Fierce Five, the U.S. squad that won the women's team title in London, have returned to competition. Kyla Ross placed second to Biles in both Antwerp and Pittsburgh, and McKayla Maroney won the world vault title last year. The other three—Douglas, Aly Raisman and Jordyn Wieber—are training but have not competed again.

Biles, who's homeschooled, has committed to UCLA, but plans to defer enrollment until after the Rio Olympics in 2016. "Rather than dwelling on the next few years, we just try to keep it light and normal and remember why she started gymnastics." says Boorman. "She's more consistent, easier to read, than last year." Karolyi says Biles has improved in the last few months, showing "better expression, more refined lines and fewer steps on the dismounts. And when you fight for medals," Karolyi says, "the Olympics can come down to one stick."

Simone Biles has found a secure landing, and her footprint on gymnastics will only grow larger.

With the Rio Olympics two years away, here are three U.S. gymnasts to watch

DONNELL WHITTENBURG

The 20-year-old from Baltimore placed fourth in the all-around in Pittsburgh to earn his first spot on a world team. Whittenburg won the vault, in part, by becoming only the second gymnast—North Korea's Ri Se-gwang was the first—to land a Tsukahara (quarter turn) full-in, back-out in competition.

MAGGIE NICHOLS

Nichols, 16, from Little Canada, Minn., placed third in the all-around at nationals, also winning bronze medals on the uneven bars and floor exercise. She has committed to attend Oklahoma in 2016.

JAZMYN FOBERG

After failing to qualify for junior nationals last year, Foberg won the U.S. junior all-around title, surprising favorites Nia Dennis and Norah Flatley. The 14-year-old from Bayville, N.J., also won gold on the uneven bars.