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Gym Built by Biles Now Builds Her Legacy

Training ground for Biles and fellow Tokyo Olympian Jordan Chiles is also state-of-the-art setting for new era of gymnastics in the United States
photo of Jessica Taylor PriceJessica Taylor PriceFeatured Columnist IPhoto by Carmen Mandato/Getty ImagesJuly 26, 2021

Most of the women and girls who competed at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team Trials in June were there alone. Yes, their parents were in the stands, and their personal coaches were on the floor with them. But with the American field whittled to just 18 athletes, the competitive standard was higher than ever. Each of the gymnasts was the best where they came from, local heroes from towns across America—one from Little Canada, Minnesota, one from Chandler, Arizona, two from Blue Springs, Missouri—and most had gradually left their training partners behind as they jumped the many competitive hurdles on the road to Tokyo. 

Simone Biles wasn't alone, though. Hailing from World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas, she competed at trials with three of her teammates, all cheering on one another in matching leotards. Two WCC athletes, including Biles, would make the Olympic team, the first time two gymnasts from the same gym made the same Olympic squad since 2004. 

And earlier this year, at the GK U.S. Classic in May, WCC sent a team of six—more than a seventh of the senior field. In a program where the best gymnasts in the country were spread far and wide, one gym had enough talent to roll out an entire Olympic team and contend for a medal. 

"It feels really amazing because we have that camaraderie. We cheer each other on," Biles said at the Classic. "For so many years I've been by myself." 

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WCC has only been on the map for a handful of years, but in that time, its star gymnast, along with her family and coaches, have created an environment in which she and her teammates can thrive and essentially compete in their own ecosystem. The impact was evident in a pre-Classic photo of the WCC delegation: Biles stood in the middle, one hand on her hip, the rest of her teammates mirroring her, looking into the camera. The message was clear: This is what success looks like. This is what gymnastics should look like.

WCC's deep roster of elite gymnasts pose at the GK U.S. Classic.
WCC's deep roster of elite gymnasts pose at the GK U.S. Classic.Photo courtesy of Amari Drayton

Driving north from Houston on the I-45, you might pass right by Spring without batting an eye, but WCC, a massive gray building towering over the flat Texas terrain, stands out. Inside is 52,000 square feet of gymnastics equipment, a private school and a parents viewing area lined with photos of Simone, as if to say, Your kid could be just like this someday. (By comparison, many of the facilities where elites train are around 30,000 square feet.) 

Just a few years ago, it was an empty lot—compared to most of the gyms represented at trials, WCC is a baby. That's because it was constructed from the ground up for Biles, then a world all-around champion and Olympic favorite. 

Biles spent most of her gymnastics career training with coach Aimee Boorman at Bannon's Gymnastix, a facility roughly 15 miles away from WCC. When Biles and her family decided to open their own gym, they put Boorman at the helm, and when it first opened in November 2015, Biles and Boorman had the 52,000 square feet—still under construction—all to themselves

Simone Biles @Simone_Biles

setting up the new gym is coming along, love receiving the pictures😍 (same picture different angles) #WCC https://t.co/Sc7jkGJpuX

It was huge, because it had so much to offer. When the gym opened, even co-owner and Simone's dad, Ron Biles, seemed surprised at the size. "We have everything here in one location," he told Community Impact Newspaper. "I've visited quite a few gyms, and this is the largest I've seen. It's just how it turned out." By "everything," he meant a dance studio, taekwondo, a pro shop, a cafe and a private school academy, all in one facility.

Biles hadn't been there long before she won five medals in Rio and took a break from gymnastics. She came back in 2017 with her sights set on Tokyo, but this time, things were very different. For one thing, she needed a new coach, as Boorman took another job during Biles' time off. She found two in Laurent and Cecile Landi, the husband-and-wife duo whose claim to fame was coaching Olympic gold and silver medalist Madison Kocian. 

For another, she wouldn't be training and traveling to competitions by herself anymore—this time, she would have a whole crew behind her, as athletes from all over the country flocked to WCC's expansive facility. Most gyms might have one or two elite gymnasts at a time, but over just a few years, WCC has been home to seven: Simone Biles, Olivia Greaves, Karis German, Amari Drayton, Sydney Barros, Jordan Chiles and Zoe Miller. They (with the exception of Greaves, whose season was cut short by injury) are all women of color, and when they traveled to the Classic together, they wore white leotards, each with different colored rhinestones. Someone on Instagram called them "Power Rangers." Drayton, meanwhile, calls it "a sisterhood."

What's the key to WCC's appeal to athletes from different places and backgrounds? For Miller and her mother, Clara, it was the Landis. "In 2017 when WCC got their new coaches, Laurent and Cecile, that's when we went straight back to WCC," said Clara. "It's really fun, we work really hard but also have a lot of fun. So it's not too stressful," Zoe says, describing Laurent and Cecile as striking a good balance between strictness and fun. 

Laurent (left) and Cecile (right) Landi accompany Chiles and Biles at the Olympics Trials in June.
Laurent (left) and Cecile (right) Landi accompany Chiles and Biles at the Olympics Trials in June.Getty Images / Jamie Squire / Staff

Similarly, Drayton found that her progress had plateaued at her old gym and decided to move to WCC two years ago in order to push her gymnastics forward. "Gymnastics-wise, WCC has helped me to upgrade my skills as well as making them a lot cleaner," she said. "I also feel like WCC has helped me to become stronger mentally by helping to believe in myself more."

For Chiles, whose meteoric rise from underrated elite to 2020 Olympic team member has been well documented, the shift was about much more than upping her gymnastics game. Hailing from Vancouver, Washington, Chiles was the star of the show at Naydenov Gymnastics and came in second in the individual all-around at the 2017 national championships. Still, that year, she was left off the Worlds team. At the next nationals, Chiles placed 11th. "I had the worst lack of confidence throughout my whole gymnastics career," Chiles said.

She was still invited to a 2018 national team training camp, and there, Biles suggested that she move to WCC. Less than a year later, in June 2019, Chiles announced on Twitter that she and her mom were packing their bags for Texas, leaving behind Chiles' four siblings, her church and the only home she had ever known. It was a massive shift, and a big sacrifice, but it made all the difference. 

While the Landis' coaching skills are nothing to laugh at, when Chiles talks about the transition, she emphasizes what they did for her mentally. She told Juliet Macur of the New York Times that in a marked contrast to her previous gym, the Landis listened and let them have fun. The effects were clear. "I found love for the sport back," she said at a press conference after the 2021 Winter Cup. "I've gotten my physical and mental health back." Now, she calls the Landis "the dopest people I've ever met in my life."

Chiles' incredible run continued as she sealed her spot in Tokyo at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June.
Chiles' incredible run continued as she sealed her spot in Tokyo at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June.Getty Images / Carmen Mandato / Staff

As for the calm demeanor that Chiles now brings to her competition, though, that "actually came from Simone herself." Biles can't take credit for forming the team (when asked about the process of deciding who gets to train there, she said, "That's not really my place"), but she can take credit for becoming a mentor for young gymnasts and for helping them through the toughest moments as a athlete: when they're in front of an audience and everything is on the line. 

"It definitely was [helpful to have teammates at trials]," Miller says. "Because Simone and Jordan kind of helped me and the younger teammates through it, like what to do, where to go." Drayton agreed: "I was definitely a little nervous [at trials], but having my teammates there definitely helped calm my nerves." 

Biles' big-sister persona is on full display during moments that catch the internet's attention, such as when she fixed Miller's bow ("That's kind of normal for the both of us," said Miller), when she told a tearful Chiles "you belong here" or when she ran from one corner of the floor to the other so she could coach Chiles at different points in her routine. 

We see her putting the effort in, and we hear her often talk about how invested she is in her teammates' success. "It's nice to be a mentor for the younger girls, and especially Jordan for her first time going to the Olympics," Biles said—not after Chiles had made the Olympic team, but after the second day of nationals. "I've seen Jordan in the gym grow a lot as a person and as a gymnast." 

Biles has embraced her role as a mentor to Chiles and other gymnasts in Tokyo.
Biles has embraced her role as a mentor to Chiles and other gymnasts in Tokyo.Getty Images / Patrick Smith / Staff

As far as the diversity in the gym, she says it's "really exciting to see," even if it's "kind of a coincidence." The rise in Black and brown girls competing at the WCC reflects a greater trend in the elite world—at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, all six members of the U.S. team were white; at these Olympics, three of the six are women of color.

The team's diversity is a departure from the norm in gymnastics, which historically has been mostly white, making it difficult for girls of color to see themselves as belonging in the sport. But trailblazers like Dominique Dawes, who won gold with the 1996 Olympic team, 2012 all-around gold medalist Gabby Douglas and Biles herself have changed the sport's landscape by inspiring a new generation of athletes of color. 

It's something that Biles sees on a regular basis when interacting with the younger athletes at her gym. "Representation matters," she said. "I think the kids can see that, and the little ones in the gym are always trying to talk to us because they see the similarities." 

Being in this environment, where she is both a teammate and a mentor, is a marked contrast from Biles' last Olympic cycle. But there's another big difference, one that affects Biles even as she excels in the sport she loves: Her difficult relationship with USA Gymnastics. After coming forward as a survivor of Larry Nassar's abuse in 2018, Biles joined a civil suit against the organization, one which has still not been resolved. To date, she's the only athlete who has come forward and then continued to compete under USAG. 

More than once, Biles has expressed her anger at the organization that failed to protect her from abuse and said how difficult it is for her to compete under the USAG umbrella. As a U.S. gymnast, the only way to the Olympics is through USAG. "But I never think of that whenever I come out here on the competition floor. If we're at Classics or championships, I'm representing my gym," she said at the Classic. 

Biles in Tokyo preparing to increase her Olympic medal haul.
Biles in Tokyo preparing to increase her Olympic medal haul.Getty Images / Tim Clayton - Corbis / Contributor

"And then once we go out of the country, we have USA." Fans have suggested that she should leave the country and compete for Belize, where she has joint citizenship. 

As of yet, Biles hasn't given us reason to believe she's entertained the idea. Instead, she shows up at competitions flanked by five other women and girls—a country's worth of top-level elites—who work out under coaches who paint themselves as the antithesis of the cold-hearted coaches of days past. The Landis say they are committed to surrounding WCC's athletes with positivity, with Laurent telling the Washington Post, "The things that hurt them, you must put that as far away as possible from the sport." Biles follows suit, keeping her teammates calm, mentoring them and telling them she's proud. 

Still, a lot of gyms across the country do what WCC does. Every gymnast at the Olympic trials got there through hard work, day in and day out, in a facility with the right equipment and a coach who knew how to get them to excel. And after Larry Nassar's crimes, it would be a mistake to paint any coach or any gym as "one of the good ones." 

What is it that makes this gym special? We know what the coaches and athletes say, what the website says—that it's a positive environment, with an emphasis on athlete well being and camaraderie. We know that it's a huge, state-of-the-art gym, with coaches who have experience getting athletes to the Olympics. We know that it's home to the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles. Her and Chiles' talent and power will be on full display in Tokyo—along with their friendship. Maybe they're the only answer we need for now.

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