On a rainy Saturday morning, Simone Biles walked into her gym, World Championship Centre, offered everyone a smile, and did a quick twirl. Watching her talk to her mom about her schedule for the morning, it is easy to forget that the petite 23-year-old is a household name, an icon in her sport, and the most decorated gymnast of all time. However just like the rest of us, Biles, who has dominated her sport for decades, has been grappling with all the issues that have plagued 2020.
Poised to go to Tokyo for the summer Olympics last year, she was favored to win the second consecutive Olympic all-around title. Biles was devastated, however, when the games were postponed because of the coronavirus. She was very open with the media in the spring of last year regarding her indecision about returning to training after the announcement. She said the biggest challenge was walking into the gym each day, not knowing how long the postponement would last. “It has been hard both mentally and physically,” says Biles. “It has been a little bit harder mentally, because I was ramping up my body and my mind to compete in the Olympics last summer. Everyone was gearing up to be at the top of their game, and then we just got shut down and had to start that process all over again. Everyone thinks it is a one-year process, but it is a four-year process, so to add one more year to that is difficult.”
Once the International Olympic Committee announced that the games would resume on the same dates in 2021, Biles felt more assured. They have since stated that the games will occur even if there isn’t an audience in attendance. After watching the NFL, NBA, MLB, and other professional sports resume their seasons, Biles has settled in with the knowledge that even if things look a little different, she will be competing. “We will have to be secluded in a bubble, which is hard mentally, but we have to make it happen because the Olympics only happens every four years,” she says. “Everyone around the world has trained for these moments since they were little, and this is how some people make their living. We just have to go on with it even if there is no audience.”
When Texas opened back up after a seven-week mandatory shut down of all non-essential business due to coronavirus, Biles got to work and ramped up her training once again. Six days per week for six to seven hours per day, Biles works with her coaches at her self-proclaimed “home away from home” World Championship Centre gym. Biles, who has been training this way since she was 13 years old, has a strong support system both in and outside the gym.
The 52,000 square foot training facility is a family business run by Biles’ parents Ron and Nellie Biles. Her brother Adam is the general manager and says Simone is treated just like any other gymnast there. Working with athletes from all over the country, Nellie Biles firmly believes that education is a large part of the training process and is currently working on getting the homeschooling portion of the gym certified as a private school. She guided Simone through her educational decisions and knows how important it is for elite athletes to have a good scholastic foundation. “We are helping them realize two dreams at once,” she says of her academic programming.
Although Simone hasn’t had to deal with academic issues for quite some time, she has had to deal with the political and racial tensions that troubled the country in 2020. As an African American athlete, Biles knows many turn to her as a role model, and she is often looked to as the spokesperson for her sport. Although many professional athletes see being a role model as a disadvantage, Biles says she is grateful for the platform she has been given and uses it to be a voice for the voiceless. While she didn’t participate in any in-person protests because of the pandemic, she did participate in peaceful protests through social media. “To see everything that has happened has deeply saddened me,” says Biles. “It has been hard because I am African American, so this sort of injustice could happen to me, or my boyfriend, or my brothers. It is really sad, and it just hits on a different level.”
With only six months left for training, Biles has put all distractions aside and has her sights set on Tokyo 2021. She self-motivates by testing her limits in the gym. “Yeah, I have all the medals, but just seeing how far I can go is what keeps me motivated and keeps me going.” When asked about retirement, which she has hinted at several times over the past few years, Simone just smiles and says no firm plan is in place. Thanks to COVID-19, there is only a three-year gap until the next Olympics in Paris 2024, so she is leaving the door open for future competition. “I actually feel like I am aging like a fine wine – it is so crazy,” says the gymnast. “I really feel like each year I get physically better and mentally stronger, so I am excited to see what I can do this year. I have to go into each competition like it might be my last though, because you never know – it might be.”