In a way, Simone Biles is like any other teenager. She is sprightly, fan-girl over Zac Effron, grooves to Justin Bieber songs and giggles unabashedly at everything life throws at her.
In a lot of other ways, she isn’t.
USA sent a 558-member strong contingent for Rio Olympics and they delivered 121 medals, but the honour to be the country’s flag-bearer for the closing ceremony fell on the shoulders of Simone Biles.
At 19, making her Olympics debut in artistic gymnastics in Rio, Biles swept away the competition to grab four gold medals (including team gold) and a bronze. That gave her a combined tally of 19 medals in the Olympics and world championships which helped her surpass Shannon Miller (16) to become the most decorated American gymnast of all times.
Her exploits at the Rio Olympics have now earned her a nomination for the Sportswoman of the Year award at the Laureus World Sports Awards alongside Katie Ledecky, Allyson Felix, Angelique Kerber, Elaine Thompson and Laura Kenny.
Nominated by the world media and voted for in a secret ballot by legendary athletes, winning a Laureus Award is every athlete’s dream. Biles is within touching distance of that reality.
She is overawed by the fact that gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Alexei Nemov are among the Academy members who will be taking part in the voting.
“One day, you do hope to be the best in your sport, because that’s what you train for. They (Academy members) have made a huge impact into the boundaries in their sports that no one thought they would ever achieve. So for them to do that and to be voting for us, it does mean a lot, because you feel like you’ve made a huge impact, along with them,” Biles says while talking to the world media via a call organised by Laureus.
She also has the chance to script another history — she will be the first gymnast to win the prestigious award since its inception in 2000 and her excitement is palpable. “Oh, gosh! It would be a huge impact on our sport, I think, having a gymnast win it, and being voted by the best of the best, it does feel like you will make your mark. So I don’t know, I think I would be shocked myself if I won it,” the Houston girl says. The award ceremony will take place in Monaco on February 14.
The most impactful human interest stories related to sportspersons often involves a narration of how he/she overcame personal tragedies, individual and societal hurdles, fought them all with grit and determination to script happy-ending fairytales. Biles could easily fit into that description.
She came from a broken home — a mother addicted to drugs and a father who abandoned Biles and her three siblings — and she lived in foster care, battled ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) while mastering an art-sport that requires zen-like focus, fought body shamers head on with a permanently-plastered smile.
The gymnast, however, feels it is being made more tragic that it actually is. “I think everyone makes the story a little bit sadder than it is. So to me, it was just falling in love with the sport, having a passion, and seeing how far I could take it with myself,” says Biles, who was adopted by maternal grandparents.
“It didn’t have any effect of where I came from. It was just where I was going and what I wanted to do with the talent I was given.”
What she did with her talent astounded the world. She became the world all-around champion and floor champion thrice, world balance beam champion twice and was a member of the gold medal-winning American teams at the 2014 and 2015 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.
The Texas native is also the proud creator of the eponymous routine ‘The Biles’ where she does a “double layout with a half twist and blind landing”. The double somersaults followed by a precise half turn gave her the bragging rights to be a gravity-defying gymnast and her Olympic performances firmly placed her on the highest pedestal in the history of American gymnastics.
Looking back at the Olympics, it all seems like a blur for the champion gymnast. “It was an amazing experience you dream about as a little girl. I know I had the best time of my life with some of my best friends,” Biles says
From looking up to the ‘Fierce Five’ team of 2012 as role models, to leading the ‘Final Five’ to team gold, Biles has been living a dream. After all, two members of the 2012 gold-medal winning team — Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman — were part of the Rio team and Biles played the pivotal role in the team win. It is natural that she is proud of the team gold more than her individual show.
“I think, I’ll always remember team finals and all-around finals. We knew that once we had done that (team gold), we broke history. So it does hold a special place in our hearts and we’ll always be connected through that specific moment,” she says.
Five months after the Rio success, life hasn’t yet returned to normalcy for the petite and powerful athlete. She has been to the White House, featured in magazine covers, attended famous award functions and has published her first authorised autobiography: ‘Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, a Life in Balance’.
“Yes, my life has changed quite a bit. Everywhere I go, people recognise me. I’m still super busy, just like after Rio. But I guess it’s good to stay busy,” she says. She is lapping up all the attention and enjoying her extended break before she goes back to the grind of tumbles and twists. “We pretty much work day in and day out with most of us only have Sundays off, training year round. So it does take a mental and physical toll on your body,” she explains.
“But it’s about pushing those to the max just so you can be the best, because it is hard, what we do. But once we focus on our goals and go after them, that’s all that really matters.”
Biles’ stupendous success has also meant that there is a greater scrutiny on all aspects of her life. Hacking group Fancy Bears threatened to undermine her achievements by ‘leaking’ news of her taking prescription drugs. While she was cleared of any wrongdoing, with the drugs having been approved under Therapeutic Use Exemptions, it brought into focus her battle with ADHD.
“In the beginning, it didn’t affect it too much, because all kids are a little bit hyper and you want the extra energy. But as I got older and I had to really, really focus whenever it came down to competition, it affected me just a little bit because I would get distracted.
“And for our sport, you need to be concentrated 100 percent when you’re on the equipment. So it was a little bit harder, but we figured it out,” she reveals in all honesty but is clearly irked by the allegations. “I feel like if you do need something, then you just need something. I do have ADHD and I just have to have an extra form to help me. It’s for me to worry about and not other people.”
Putting the episode behind her, the 4 foot 8 inch athlete has kept Tokyo 2020 in her sights. Can she do any better?
“I think it’s about staying consistent. That’s most important. You need to be as ready mentally as you can be physically. Because if you’re in the physical shape, it goes a long way, but you need to be mentally up to par,” she explains.
“I guess it’s still just focus, and at this Olympics, I feel like inside I did everything right, so if I can repeat that, I could be successful again.”
As for her medal aspirations for Tokyo Olympics, Biles isn’t willing to commit to a number. “I think it’s just maintaining the standard, because I feel like every four years, they do make gymnastics a little bit harder by changing the rule book. So it is a little bit different. But I don’t know how I’ll approach it until I start to get back in it. It’s a little far to think about,” she says.
For all her daredevilry and risky dismounts that she constantly pulls off, Biles is however certain she will never ever attempt the ‘Produnova’. The vault of death, involving a handspring double front somersault, thrust Indian gymnast Dipa Karmakar into limelight and she finished fourth in the vault finals.
“I think certain people stick to certain things that they want to do, and I don’t see that happening in my future,” Biles says while acknowledging Karmakar’s feat.
“I do know what she did for the sport was history breaking. So I know back home she inspired a lot of other little kids, to be just like her, which means a lot. And for us to watch someone break history in the same sport that we do, it’s amazing to watch and watch it blossom. She’s exciting.”