One Monday morning early in this Olympic year, on no particularly important day with nothing particularly important on the schedule, the world’s best female gymnast — perhaps the best gymnast in history — walked out of her bedroom and into the kitchen.
She sat at the kitchen counter, put her head in her hands, and sighed.
The Rio Games were more than six months away, which made this another day of keeping her mind from drifting into dangerous territory.
“I’m not thinking about being in the Olympics,” the gymnast, Simone Biles, said. “Well, at least I’m trying not to think about it.”
Biles is the best American gymnast since, well, probably ever. She is 4 feet 9 inches, with size 5 feet, but there’s an unfathomable amount of power packed into her petite package. She flies through the air as if she were part bird and part cannonball. When she competes, it is nearly impossible not to stop and stare.
Last fall, at the world championships, Biles, 18, won the world all-around title for the third consecutive time, a streak that was unheard-of before she came around and shredded the old record book. Her 10 gold medals at the world championships are the most for any woman; her 14 overall medals are more than any other American woman.
That makes her the favorite — the runaway favorite, actually — to win the all-around title at the Rio Games. And that, unfortunately, is both a good thing and a bad thing.
“I overthink everything,” she said. “And I have to try not to.”
Dealing with that pressure to live up to expectations could make an athlete more confident, or cause her to crumble. With the Olympics on the horizon, and getting closer by the day, how is Biles handling that mounting stress?
She has a plan that requires taking baby steps toward Rio, and trying not to worry about what’s at stake there.
Biles wrote her goals for 2016 in a leather-bound journal that Nike, her sponsor, gave her after she turned professional last summer. When we met in January, she let me leaf through the pages. There was not one mention of a gold medal anywhere.
Instead, Biles wrote that she wanted to make her second vault harder, so it could garner more points. She wrote that she wanted to be more consistent on the uneven bars.
Her final goal was to make the Olympic team.
“That’s all?” her mother, Nellie, said when she saw the list. “Just make the team?”
“Yep,” Simone replied. “I’ll update the list if I need to later.”
That made Nellie Biles happy. She knows that for Simone to remain successful, she must remain humble. That’s the way she and her husband, Ron, raised her since Simone was 3 and had to move to Texas from Columbus, Ohio, with her younger sister, Adria, because their biological mother had drug problems and could no longer care for them. Ron and Nellie, now in their 60s, with two grown children of their own, ended up adopting the girls.
Now the Biles family lives here in this Houston suburb, in a 6,000-square-foot Tuscan-style house with a six-car garage that is far different from their simpler upbringings, Ron’s in a Cleveland housing project and Nellie’s in Belize, where her family had no television or car.
They are grateful for how far they have come and don’t brag about their achievements. That humility has rubbed off on Simone.
“Simone is not the type of person to go around saying that she wants to win the gold medal, because that’s thinking too much of yourself and giving yourself too much credit,” Nellie Biles said. “I always tell her, ‘You never know what’s going to happen.’ If doing her best means she will come out on top, that’s awesome. If it means she’ll finish fourth, that’s awesome, too.”
There is pressure on Simone to win the gold medal, of course, but not extra pressure just because she has her own gym, Nellie Biles said. Nellie and Ron recently built and opened a 56,000-square-foot gymnastics facility called the World Champions Centre here. The center is a gymnast’s dream, with workout spaces and therapy centers and even a classroom for athletes who are home-schooled. The business can only be helped by any association with Simone Biles, regardless of how she fares this summer, but it is not essential to the plan.
Nellie Biles, who was a nurse who ended up owning 14 nursing homes, had the vision to build a profitable gymnastics business, and she is making it happen. Simone can chase her own goals.
Simone insists that she is just like any other teenager, but she’s not. She was identified as a gymnastics prodigy when she was 6, when her coach, Aimee Boorman, saw her in a day care class. She is such a talent that now she has a signature move on the floor routine named after her: It is called the Biles, and it’s a double flip in the layout position, with a half twist added at the end. You will see it soon enough.
For now, Simone Biles is just trying to lie low before the Olympic trials in July. Her next competition will be the Pacific Rim Championships in April. By then, there will be growing talk about adding to the recent dynasty the U.S. team has built at the Olympics. American women have won the past three Olympic gold medals in the all-around. For now, though, Biles is tuning that out and focusing instead on her training, reruns of “90210” and “The Carrie Diaries,” and mani-pedis with her sister.
Being normal is how she keeps her mind off being a phenom, and off being the Olympic favorite.
At one meet last year, as she stood on the runway just before performing her vault, she eased her nerves by chatting with a Canadian gymnast. The two talked about a boy they knew.
“I was just asking her about him and we went back and forth about him for a few minutes,” Biles said with a giggle. “I just needed to keep my mind busy.”
Whatever it takes to keep her mind off the pressure, she’ll do it. So far, so good.