Family values keep high-flying Biles grounded

At 1.44m, Simone Biles packs an enormous amount of power into her petite frame. She is regarded as the best American gymnast ever.
At 1.44m, Simone Biles packs an enormous amount of power into her petite frame. She is regarded as the best American gymnast ever. PHOTO: REUTERS

TEXAS • One morning early in this Olympic year, the world's best female gymnast - perhaps the best gymnast in history - walked out of her bedroom and into the kitchen.

She sat at the kitchen counter, put her head in her hands, and sighed. The Rio Games were more than six months away, which made this another day of keeping her mind from drifting into dangerous territory.

"I'm not thinking about being in the Olympics," the gymnast, Simone Biles, said. "Well, at least I'm trying not to think about it."

She is the best American gymnast since, well, probably ever. She is 1.44m, with size 5 feet, but there is an unfathomable amount of power packed into her petite package. She flies through the air as if she were part bird and part cannonball. When she competes, it is nearly impossible not to stop and stare.

Last autumn, at the World Championships, Biles, 18, won the all-around title for the third consecutive time, a streak that was unheard of before she came around. Her 10 golds at the World Championships are the most for any woman; her 14 overall medals are more than any other American woman.

That makes her the favourite to win the all-around title at the Rio Games. And that, unfortunately, is both a good thing and a bad thing.

"I overthink everything," she said, "and I have to try not to."

Dealing with that pressure to live up to expectations could make an athlete more confident, or cause her to crumble. With the Olympics getting closer by the day, how is Biles handling that mounting stress?

She has a plan that requires taking baby steps toward Rio, and trying not to worry about what's at stake there.

Biles wrote her goals for this year in a leather-bound journal that Nike, her sponsor, gave her after she turned professional last summer. There was not one mention of a gold medal anywhere in January.

Instead, she wrote that she wanted to make her second vault harder, so it could garner more points. She wrote that she wanted to be more consistent on the uneven bars.

Her final goal was to make the Olympic team.

"That's all?" her mother, Nellie, asked when she saw the list. "Just make the team?"

"Yep," Simone replied. "I'll update the list if I need to later."

That made Nellie Biles happy. She knows that for Simone to remain successful, she must remain humble. That is the way she and her husband, Ron, raised her since Simone was three and had to move to Texas from Columbus, Ohio, with her younger sister, Adria, because their biological mother had drug problems and could no longer care for them. Ron and Nellie, now in their 60s, with two grown-up children of their own, ended up adopting the girls.

Now the Biles family live in Houston, in a 6,000 sq ft Tuscan-style house with a six-car garage that is far different from their simpler upbringings - Ron in a Cleveland housing project and Nellie in Belize, where her family had no television or car.

They are grateful for how far they have come and do not brag about their achievements. That humility has rubbed off on Simone.

"Simone is not the type of person to go around saying that she wants to win the gold medal, because that's thinking too much of yourself and giving yourself too much credit," Nellie Biles, who was a nurse who ended up owning 14 nursing homes, said. "I always tell her, 'You never know what's going to happen.' If doing her best means she will come out on top, that's awesome. If it means she'll finish fourth, that's awesome too."

There is pressure on Simone to win the gold medal, of course, but not extra pressure just because she has her own gym, Nellie Biles said.

Nellie and Ron recently built and opened a 56,000 sq ft gymnastics facility called the World Champions Centre in Houston.

Simone insists that she is just like any other teenager, but she is not. At age six, she was identified as a gymnastics prodigy when her coach, Aimee Boorman, saw her in a day-care class. She is such a talent that now she has a signature move on the floor routine named after her: It is called the Biles, and it's a double flip in the layout position, with a half twist added at the end.

For now, Simone is just trying to lie low before the Olympic trials in July. Her next competition will be the Pacific Rim Championships next month.

By then, there will be growing talk about adding to the recent dynasty the US team have built at the Olympics. American women have won the past three Olympic golds in the all-around.

For now, though, Biles is tuning that out and focusing instead on her training, reruns of 90210 and The Carrie Diaries.

Being normal is how she keeps her mind off being a phenomenon, and off being the Olympic favourite.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2016, with the headline 'People Family values keep high-flying Biles grounded'. Subscribe