For world champion gymnast Simone Biles, her talent has become her job.
“When I’m healthy, I go to the gym from 9 to 6:30 p.m. and train twice, from 9 to 12 and 2:30 to 6:30, so seven hours a day,” Simone tells The Root in an airy, petite voice from Spring, Texas. “I do that every day.”
But it hasn’t been an easy road. The 16-year-old athlete who wowed judges in Belgium during the World 2013 Championships and became a lightning rod for an international racial controversy is not only the first black world all-around champion but also the product of a blended family—one that stepped up when her birth mother wasn’t able.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Simone is actually the biological grandchild of Ron and Nellie Biles. While battling drug addiction, Ron Biles’ daughter bore eight children, who wound up in the foster-care system. Simone was one of the eight. The Bileses adopted two of the girls, Simone and her younger sister Adria. Two other children live with Ron Biles’ sister, two others were adopted out of the family and the remaining pair are with their birth mother in Ohio.
“She is our daughter; we did a formal adoption in a court where we were sworn in as a family,” Nellie Biles says in a Belizean accent. “The key is to have permanent homes for children. It’s a blessing.”
At age 6 Simone went to Bannon’s Gymnastix, a gymnastics training facility for children in Houston, on a day care field trip, and her flexibility caught the coach’s attention.
“Her talent was evident at a young age; she just knew how to flip,” says coach Aimee Boorman, who, along with Luis Brasesco, trains Simone. “She has always been committed with her time. Through the years it’s just been guiding her to refine her talents, and everything’s come to fruition through her hard work.”
Still, Simone hasn’t tumbled into her success. She spends as much time practicing her moves as most people spend in their cubicles. She recently underwent minor foot surgery for a bone spur and returned to Bannon’s, her home gym, the next day.
Off the mat, she has also learned what racism looks like on an international stage.
“My mom said, ‘People will say things, but you just have to go back and see what you accomplished and be happy for what you did,’” Simone says softly.
In October, just after Simone was crowned the world’s greatest gymnast, an Italian competitor named Carlotta Ferlito made off-color remarks in reference to Simone and kicked off an international uproar.
“I told [teammate Vanessa Ferrari] that next time we should also paint our skin black so then we can win, too,” Ferlito said in an interview.
To boot, Italian Gymnastics Federation official David Ciaralli added fuel to the fire on the organization’s Facebook page by posting the following in Italian:
Carlotta was talking about what she thinks is the current gymnastics trend: the Code of Points is opening chances for colored people (known to be more powerful) and penalizing the typical Eastern European elegance, which, when gymnastics was more artistic and less acrobatic, allowed Russia and Romania to dominate the field … Is gymnastics suiting colored features more and more, to the point athletes wish they were black?
Ferlito has since apologized, tweeting she’s “just a human,” and so has the Italian Gymnastics Federation. The USA Gymnastics organization has announced that it is investigating the comments.
For many, the Italian controversy reintroduced the stereotypical argument of blacks being “built” for physical sports and slavery. At Deadspin, writer Dvora Meyers likened the hurtful comments to the storied comparisons between black and white football players, quoting from a study analyzing the terms used to describe NFL quarterbacks:
“Black quarterbacks were primarily described with words and phrases that emphasized their physical gifts and their lack of mental prowess. Conversely, white quarterbacks were described as less physically gifted, but more mentally prepared for the game and less likely to make mental errors.” Swap out “intelligence” for “artistry” and you’ve got exactly what Ciaralli was saying in his statement about Biles and black gymnasts.
Although Simone says she wasn’t surprised by her competitor’s reaction, her parents have been working to protect their daughter from future attacks, verbal or otherwise. “I talked to her about it that day and since then, saying, ‘We’re not going to address this,’” Nellie Biles says. “What was more devastating: A really good thing had just taken place for my daughter, and we all were trying to absorb it because it’s such a surreal experience.”
It’s up to the teen and her family to make sure that moment will not define her career as they push through toward the 2016 Olympics. “The long-term goal would be the Olympics for Simone, but we have many other steps to reach that goal,” says Ron Biles, who is retired and attends almost all of his daughter’s meets. “Every year she has to requalify for the national team.”
The homeschooled high school student graduates in 2015 and is looking at Division I colleges like UCLA and Alabama State. Simone wants to be a pediatric nurse, and both schools have said they will work with her gymnastics schedule to make her degree possible.
“Nursing runs in our family,” Simone says. “My mom is an RN.”
For someone so young and in the spotlight, the teen is also grounded without being too serious. “She’s playful. The other day she said something so funny during practice that I didn’t have a comeback for it,” Coach Boorman shares. “She’s definitely someone all the other kids want to be around.”
With the 2016 Olympics on the horizon (though Simone says the games are too far away to prepare for right now) and Gabby Douglas’ success refocusing the spotlight on black gymnasts, Simone, the reigning 2013 U.S. national all-around and world all-around champion, is taking her path one competition at a time.
“I just do what I do in training and not try to change anything.”
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.