Simone Biles: From a Girl Without a Home to an Olympian on Rio's Center Stage

photo of Lars AndersonLars AndersonSenior WriterAugust 3, 2016

SPRING, Texas — They were sitting in their living room in 2002, an otherwise ordinary winter evening on the Texas plains, when Ron Biles asked his wife the question—one that would ultimately alter the course of U.S. gymnastics history.

Oh, this was a heavy question, freighted with long-term consequences and implications that not even Ron could have divined. His wildest dreams simply didn't stretch as far as an Olympic gold medal—or maybe even five—being tied up in what he was about to ask.

Here is what Ron knew on that cool night in the Lone Star State: His daughter from a previous marriage was struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. A mother of four children, she had recently lost custody of all of them, including five-year-old Simone and three-year-old Adria Biles. Their father had abandoned them years earlier.

The girls were in foster care in Ohio, living in a house that had a trampoline in the backyard. The contraption hypnotized little Simone—she would stare at it through the window and fantasize what it would be like to jump on it and fly into the sky. But she was forbidden to use it.

Ron's four grandchildren from Ohio had previously lived with him and his wife, Nellie, for about a year in Texas. But it was always considered a temporary arrangement. The hope was that Ron's daughter, Shanon, would overcome her addiction issues and take the children back.

She did for a short span, but now on this winter evening in 2002, a social worker in Ohio called Ron and told him Shanon was incapable of caring for the four children. They were going to be put up for adoption.

(Bleacher Report was unable to reach Shanon Biles for this story.)

Ron's heart sank at the news. Those girls were the greatest joys in his life, the suns in his solar system. Sure, Simone was rambunctious—she loved to climb on the couch and leap off, as if trying to take flight—but she also was irresistible.

She constantly flashed her luminous, little-girl smile and batted those big brown eyes at her grandpa and grandma, which was what she called Ron and Nellie. Ron melted into a puddle of happiness every time Simone and Adria came running into his arms.

Now, after learning that his granddaughters would soon be heading for adoption, Ron asked Nellie if she would be willing to make a lifelong commitment to the girls.

"Would it be possible for us to take them in?" Ron said to his wife. "They need us."

Nellie immediately knew what her answer would be, but she was momentarily devastated, the words like a punch to the gut. She'd already raised a family—her own two boys from a previous marriage were preparing for college—and the thought of becoming a full-time mother again at age 47 was overwhelming.

Did she really want to deal with two young girls? Did she want to walk them through those difficult, daunting adolescent years, navigating those minefields of body changes and boys?

"It was hard, but it was necessary to bring Simone and Adria here and to give them a home," Nellie said. "So it was really an easy decision to have the girls come live with us."

(The two older Biles children went to live with a sister of Ron's in Ohio.)

On Christmas Eve 2002, the girls moved to the dusty Texas town of Spring, located 30 miles north of Houston. Nearly a year later, Ron, Nellie, Simone and Adria walked into a local courthouse. On the witness stand a social worker explained what loving parents Ron and Nellie were, and how happy and fulfilled the girls appeared to be. Without hesitation, the judge pronounced that the adoption was complete: Simone and Adria were now officially the children of Ron, an air traffic controller, and Nellie, a registered nurse.

Leaving the courthouse, Nellie told the girls, "It's up to you guys, but you can call us mom and dad if you want."

That night in her upstairs bedroom, little Simone stood in front of a mirror for nearly an hour, practicing two words over and over—mom, dad, mom, dad, mom, dad.

The next morning Simone was halfway down the stairs when she spotted Nellie. Smiling beautifully, her eyes shining, Simone asked, "Grandma, can I call you Mom?"

"Of course," Nellie replied. "Of course."

The two hugged, long and tight, their eyes dewy. Simone was finally home.

Her foundation set, the young girl was now ready to begin her personal journey to becoming the greatest female gymnast in the history of the sport.

US gymnast Simone Biles competes on the beam during the Women's Team event final on the fifth day of the 2015 World Gymnastics Championship in Glasgow, Scotland, on October 27, 2015. Gymnasts can secure qualification for the 2016 Rio Games at the champion

It was just a moment, happening as fast and furious as a barn door blowing open in a springtime storm, but it distilled the raw power of Simone Biles—the source of her athletic brilliance.

It was mid-May and Biles was strolling across a mat at the World Champions Centre, a 52,000-square-foot gym with 50-foot ceilings in Spring. Owned by Ron and Nellie, who built the gym to be a source of retirement income, the WCC opened in November 2015 and is something of a gymnastics Shangri-la. It features multiple balance beams and uneven bars, two spring floors, a massive pit of foam cubes, a cafe, an observation room above the gym for adults, work spaces for parents and classrooms for families who home-school their children.

Biles had just finished a light workout. At 4'9", 105 pounds, she has oaks for legs and her upper body bursts with muscles in places where most people don't even have places. She walks with an athlete's easy, cool gait.

As she casually made her way out of the facility that could house a handful of 747s, she suddenly took three quick steps forward and, with virtually no one in the gym looking, cartwheeled and tumbled forward. Then, as if on a pogo stick, she leapt high into the air. For one heartbeat, two, three—it appeared Newton's laws didn't apply to this 19-year-old young woman in a pink leotard.

Biles soared into the ether, a small rocket launching. At her apex—it looked like she could have been jumping over a pickup truck—she somersaulted forward. Her flip completed, she returned from orbit and landed without the slightest of wobbles.

It was an arresting, awe-inspiring display of athleticism—think of Michael Jordan taking off at the free-throw line in the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest—yet Biles pulled it off as if it was as commonplace for her as going on Snapchat. Once back on earth, she continued to walk across the gym with a megawatt smile lighting her face, another day at the office completed.

"Simone has the ability to be the greatest gymnast in the history of the sport," said Bela Karolyi, the former U.S. national team coordinator who now mentors Biles. "She has more power and athleticism than anyone before her, and it's not even close. She can do things that other past champions couldn't have dreamed of even attempting. She's on a completely different level. The world has never seen anything like her."

Biles was too young to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London; athletes must turn 16 in the year of the Games to be eligible, and she was 15 at the time. But now she enters Rio as the leader of the American team that many analysts say is the deepest squad in Olympic history and should be a shoo-in to win gold in the team competition.

"This American team is the strongest the world has ever seen," said Shannon Miller, who won a total of seven medals in the 1992 and '96 Olympics. "You could probably send an entire second team of U.S. gymnasts to Rio and they would win silver behind the first team. That's how far in front the U.S. is in women's gymnastics right now."

Biles is the overwhelming favorite to win the all-around title, and barring a major collapse she should cruise to gold in three individual events: the beam, the floor and the vault. Because her degree of difficulty in her routines in these events is so much higher than her competitors, she could falter slightly in each event and still wind up on top of the podium with a gold medal draped around her neck.

Her weakest event is the uneven bars, but she's still capable of capturing gold on what is her least favorite apparatus.

Aly Raisman
Aly RaismanDilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

"We joke that the rest of us are competing for second place," said Aly Raisman, another member of the U.S. women's gymnastics team who won two golds and a bronze at the 2012 Olympics. "Simone is just on another level."

"Simone is the best I've ever seen," said Mary Lou Retton, the 1984 all-around gold-medal winner. "She has redefined our thinking for what we thought was possible for a gymnast to do."

How ruthlessly dominating has Biles been on the world stage since American Gabby Douglas captured the all-around gold in London four years ago? In October 2015 in Glasgow, Scotland, Biles won her third straight all-around title at the World Championships, becoming the first woman in history to pull off such a feat.

In June she cruised to her fourth consecutive national title at the P&G Championships in St. Louis, recording a career-high score (125.000) that was almost four points ahead of her nearest competitor—a blowout victory. And in July she took home the all-around title in the U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose, California.

To call Biles the Michael Jordan or Serena Williams of her sport could actually be an understatement. She isn't just the gold standard in gymnastics; she may very well be the most dominating athlete—male or female—in any sport in the world right now.

"I don't really view myself as the world's best or anything like that," Biles said as she stood in the WCC this spring. "I have great confidence in what I do and I'm really just competing against myself out there. I know my whole career is building toward the Olympics and it can sound like a lot of pressure, but I'm just staying focused on what I can control and do my thing. I'm not alone; my family is with me when I'm out there competing. And I do believe in myself. I really do."

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Biles beams as she speaks—she is a virtual torch of the All-American glow—and she is preternaturally perky. Many young gymnasts scowl and grimace when they walk off the competition floor, but not Biles, who winks and waves to the crowd moments before she steps into a routine and then again once she's finished.

Indeed, when the klieg lights are trained on her, Biles seems incapable of displaying frustration, as if she intuitively knows she's going to win even before the meet begins—the picture of an in-her-prime athlete whose confidence is in full flower.

Biles is a young 19; she still lives at home with mom and dad and is tasked with weekly chores, such as after-dinner dish duty, feeding the family's four German shepherds and cleaning her room. She has a weakness for pizza, a Category 5 crush on Zac Efron and confesses that she could spend days walking through the shops at the nearby Woodlands Mall.

She has a young man in her life who she won't call her "boyfriend," and she attends church most Sundays with her family. She is constantly on Snapchat and Instagram.

Like many young gymnasts, she has difficulty explaining her talents. "I guess it's just natural for me," she said. "I'm lucky. I can't tell you how I do what I do because I don't really know myself."

Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

She was not a natural, not at first anyway.

Shortly after moving to Texas, five-year-old Simone was sitting on a swing in her backyard watching her older brother, Adam, jump up and down on a trampoline. After Adam flawlessly flipped in the air, Simone approached.

A daredevil even then, Simone tried to replicate her brother's move. She crawled up on the trampoline. She bounced a few times and then tried to flip but came up short and bumped her nose on her knee, causing blood to spurt out of her nostrils. "It was a bad decision," Simone said.

"It scared her getting a bloody nose, but an hour later she asked me if she could try it again," Adam said. "So after she got cleaned up, we went back outside. The second time she did it, she pretty much had it down. That's the thing about Simone: She rarely makes the same mistake twice."

Adam and his older brother Ronald grew close to their new sisters. The family underwent two years of counseling—two years of learning how to let their emotional walls down, of learning how to love each other.

"The counseling was the best thing we did for our family," Nellie said. "Simone always talked for Adria, always nurtured her and took care of her. Simone had to realize that she could be a kid. She had to relinquish the job of caring for Adria to me. She finally did when she began to feel safe."

Growing more comfortable with her new mom and dad, Simone became increasingly intrepid. One morning when she was six, she was at daycare, where Adam was a teacher. The plan was to take the kids to an oil ranch for outdoor activities, but it was one of those late-summer, tar-bubbling hot Texas days. So Adam instead chaperoned the kids into the air-conditioned cool of Bannon's Gymnastix in Houston.

"I never could have guessed what was about to happen," Adam said.

Indeed, in the sprawling story of Simone's life in gymnastics, this was the moment of genesis. Once inside the gym, she closely studied the older gymnasts, her power of observation one of her greatest strengths. Within minutes, she began imitating the older girls, tumbling across the mat, performing somersaults and cartwheeling over and over.

"The people at the gym sent a note home with Simone asking if I would consider signing her up for gymnastics or cheerleading," Nellie said. "Once Simone handed me the note, she said, 'Mom, can I please go?' She was a hyper girl then. She'd flip on the furniture and cartwheel everywhere. I always yelled at her to stop and told her that the house wasn't a playground, but as soon as my back was turned she'd still flip around. I asked her what she wanted to do, and she said, 'Gymnastics.'"

Simone enrolled at Bannon's Gymnastix. Days later in the gym she was sitting on the ground near the uneven bars waiting for her turn on the apparatus. Aimee Boorman, a former gymnast and coach at Bannon's, was walking nearby and looking in Simone's direction when Simone, from her sitting position, leapt to her feet in one fluid, graceful motion. The six-year-old performed the out-of-the-blue jump with startling ease.

"That was just kinetic energy from her body," Boorman said. "I was like, 'Wow, this kid is something.'"

Aimee Boorman and Simone Biles.
Aimee Boorman and Simone Biles.Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Boorman began monitoring this Biles girl closely. She marveled at her natural "air sense," Simone's ability to maintain a sense of balance while twisting through the air and then having her feet land back on earth without falling. It was as if she had the inborn—and in-flight—awareness of a cat.

Within months, Boorman became Simone's full-time coach. "We've been together for so long it's almost like I'm a second mother to Simone," Boorman said. "She's grown up in front of my eyes."

With her coach by her side, Simone quickly scaled the gymnastics ladder. At a meet in 2011 Biles caught the attention of Marta Karolyi, Bela's wife and the coordinator of the U.S. women's gymnastics team. After seeing Biles win the vault and the beam in the American Classic meet in Houston, Marta invited Biles to the Karolyi Ranch near Huntsville, Texas, where the national team holds monthly practice sessions.

"Simone had so much raw talent, but she needed to control it," Karolyi said. "The power she had was just incredible."

Simone's career reached a crossroads when she was 14. Training at the Karolyi Ranch, she now understood she had the potential to be a world-class gymnast. But to reach that elite level, she would need to increase her training to more than 30 hours a week, and she would have to travel across the planet to international competitions.

This forced her to make a decision: attend high school with her friends and give up her Olympic aspirations, or be home-schooled and continue to pursue gymnastics.

Ron and Nellie repeatedly asked a counselor at her local high school to allow her to miss the time her sport required, but the requests were denied. The counselor explained that in Texas students were not allowed more than 15 absences a year; Simone would likely miss twice that many school days.

Nellie then sat down with Simone. "Whatever choice you make is totally going to change your life," the mother told her daughter. "I will support you either way. But I can't make this choice. This is your choice. This is your life."

For days, when she wasn't at the gym, Simone sat in her room and stewed on the decision. She knew that home schooling meant she'd miss Friday night high school football games, parties, proms, homecomings and spring dances. But in the end, the lure of gymnastics—the dream of taking flight, seeded so long ago—was too strong.

"I never wanted to give up gymnastics," Simone said. "I did miss public school and the chance to be with my friends. That was hard, obviously. But I just couldn't give up what I had started."

Shortly after deciding, Simone began globetrotting to different competitions, to places as far away as China, Italy and Germany. Her biological mother showed up at a few meets in the United States. Simone talks to her about once a month; Shanon Biles will not be in Rio.

But the constant presence by Simone's side, her traveling partner and roommate, always was the same person: the woman she calls Mom.

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 10:  Simone Biles warms up on the uneven bars during Day 2 of the 2016 U.S. Women's Gymnastics Olympic Trials at SAP Center on July 10, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It came out of nowhere, really, the moment Simone Biles figured out how to harness her power.

At a meet in early 2013 in Chicago she fell off the uneven bars. In her best event—the floor—she stumbled to the ground. And on the beam, her second-strongest event, she wobbled like Humpty Dumpty. She was so shaky that Boorman yanked her from the meet before it was over.

With encouragement from Nellie and Boorman, Biles met with a sports psychologist, who emphasized that the teen didn't need to be perfect in all her routines and that she was putting too much pressure on herself. He repeatedly told her that her competitors shouldn't intimidate her, because she was just as talented as the girls she had grown up idolizing.

The pixie dust had been sprinkled. A few weeks later she won her first U.S. championship. Then, with her confidence redlining, Simone unveiled what would become her signature move at the 2013 World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium. In the floor event, at the end of a tumbling run, she appeared to rise as high as a basketball rim. She then executed a double layout flip, with her body fully extended, and half twist. She landed it perfectly.

How hard was this? Most gymnasts struggle to simply complete a double somersault at the end of their tumbling run; Simone generated so much amplitude that she had time to pull off an even harder maneuver (the fully extended double layout flip) and still had enough time to add a half twist for good measure. The move was quickly dubbed "The Biles."

"Gymnastics is a process for me," Biles said. "I practice, practice, practice and then something will just click and then I have the move. It is not always fun, and it's not like I can go out to lunch with friends because I have to practice. But it's worth it once you feel that click. I hope my move will be around forever."

Since debuting "The Biles" three years ago, Simone has won every meet she's entered.

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 10:  (L-R) (Front Row:) Lauren Hernandez, MyKayla Skinner, Simone Biles, Ragan Smith (Back Row) Ashton Locklear, Alexandra Raisman, Madison Kocian, and Gabrielle Douglas pose for a team photo after they were selected for the Olympic Te
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

All the legends were there. It was remarkable how fit they all looked—a living commercial for the long-term benefits of gymnastics—as they strode through the bowels of the SAP Center in San Jose.

It was early July and more than 100 former American gymnasts were on hand to watch the final day of competition of the U.S. women's gymnastics trials. But in truth the event felt more like a one-woman show, featuring the girl from the plains of Texas.

"Simone is strong as an ox and can fly like a bird," said Muriel Grossfeld, who competed in the 1956, '60 and '64 Olympic Games. "She's the best I've seen in my lifetime."

"Simone has been blessed with intellectual fortitude, body awareness and confidence," said Cathy Rigby, who competed in the 1968 and '72 Olympics. "She's not afraid of anything. After she wins gold in Rio, she'll be considered the greatest ever."

"There's never been anyone like Simone," said Kim Zmeskal, who won a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics. "Her power has always stood out, but now she has the confidence to go with it. She's as close as there's ever been to being the perfect gymnast."

At just past 5:35 p.m. local time on July 10, Simone bounded toward the middle of the arena for her floor exercise, her first routine of the night. As she made her way to the floor, she looked up into the fourth row of the stands and spotted the most important person in her life. She winked as a sly grin spread across her face.

From her fourth-row seat, Nellie Biles smiled back down at Simone, her pearly whites gleaming like a long row of piano keys.

Simone stepped onto the floor. The music started. She ran and jumped and flipped and jetted into the air, her eyes bright with joy. And just at that moment it was impossible to tell who looked happier—the proud mom in the stands or the child she saved long ago.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that Biles' third straight all-around championship was a record for both women and men, but Kohei Uchimura has won the men's all-around at every World Championships or Olympics since 2009. We regret the error. 


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