On Tuesday, Simone Biles completed her Olympics on her terms, as a two-time bronze medalist on the beam and as the most successful American gymnast in history with seven medals, including four gold medals. Biles wasn’t defined by what she didn’t do in Tokyo. Instead, the lasting images will be of her cheering on and cheering on her teammates and competitors Return to competition under great control and pressure to maybe win the last Olympic medal of her career.
“I wasn’t even counting on a medal on bars,” Biles said after the meeting. “I was just trying to hit one more beam set. To have another chance to compete in the Olympics meant the world to me.”
Biles has not confirmed whether she will continue training ahead of the World Championships in Kitakyushu, Japan, in October, or the Paris Olympics in 2024. But whatever she chose, the foundation for Biles’ remarkable legacy was laid before she ever entered the Olympic competitive field and extends well beyond her medals and awards.
It may have started with a post about pizza.
Four months before Biles led the US to team gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she posted a boomerang on Instagram a greasy pepperoni pizza. “Luck,” she wrote, adding a few emojis. It received more than 100,000 likes, but most of the people who scrolled it probably registered it as nothing more than a teen talking about their lunch.
For generations of former gymnasts, however, this post was brave. In their experience, gymnasts shouldn’t talk (or think about) junk food or vacations or friends, life outside of the gym, or opinions they share in public places. The fear and control that surrounded the sport perpetuated silence and conformity, even for those whose jerseys had long since gathered dust.
During my reporting for the 30 for 30 podcast series “Heavy medals“, More than one former Olympian brought up the post unsolicited as a sign of a long overdue postponement. It was defiant in its youthful everydayness, evidence that Biles would not be folded and shaped to fit in the pretty box of a gymnast whose life was curated and controlled from morning to midnight.
Biles changed the archetype of what it means to be an elite gymnast.
As she developed mind-blowing new skills and won a staggering seven national championships, five world titles, and total Olympic gold – while giggling and cheering on her competitors – she (and her coaches and support team) demonstrated a different way of winning. She showed courage in her performances and also in her decision to share her life outside of the gym. Her notoriety gave other gymnasts permission to do the same.
“She understands how powerful her voice is and I think it feels good,” said Biles trainer Cecile Laurent in 2019. “It’s scary too. She feels like she is there for her and for the other girls must do.”
What started with a few posts about National Pizza Day and the Belize vacation resulted in a January 2018 tweet that revealed that Biles was also a survivor of sexual abuse by US gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. She wrote that it was heartbreaking to return to “the same training facility where I was abused”.
Three days later, the USAG shut down the Houston ranch owned by longtime US coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi and severed ties with the couple. The Biles reveal and the governing body’s response to it encouraged other former elites to speak out and share their truth. This train only gained steam.
“If she didn’t put her life out there, it wouldn’t have that big an impact if she exclaimed on social media what she saw as injustice,” Biles’ former coach Aimee Boorman once told me. “The world listens to her because she is honest about her life. Yes I have a friend. Yes, I put on bikinis. Yes, I think that is an injustice in the world. “
All of this is the backdrop for the team final in Tokyo last Tuesday. When Biles withdrew from the competition after one turn, gymnasts and gymnastics fans praised her decision. Your teammates and coaches supported it wholeheartedly. They knew the danger she posed to herself and the team’s potential for a medal if she carried on despite such a severe mental block that she became disoriented in the air about her twisting abilities. They also knew that if the roles were reversed, Biles would support them.
“I was 14 years old and had a tibia fatigue fracture that was left alone without a cervical spine exam after this fall,” said 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu wrote on Twitter Above is a video of her slipping and landing on her head during a beam performance at the 1996 Games. “Simone Biles’ decision shows that we have a say in our own health – a say I NEVER had as an Olympian.”
The revelations about Nassar and the mental and psychological abuse of gymnasts by coaches and staff of the US national team have exposed the cost of all these gold medals. The past five years have prepared the gymnastics community to cheer any gymnast who puts safety over exercise, mental health over medals, and team over himself, especially the greatest gymnast of all time.
Because of her decision, talks are currently taking place around the world that Biles cannot control. Occasional athletes who are unaware of their endless commitment to their sport, their teammates and a country that has repeatedly let them down can be described as selfish or as a climber.
Then you can google the 2018 World Championships in Doha, Qatar, where they led the US to the biggest victory in history, got the highest scores on bars, jump and floor, and a jump (now called “Biles”) was done by no woman in the world had previously completed. And all of this when passing a kidney stone. “The kidney stone can wait,” Biles posted on Twitter after a visit to the emergency room 24 hours before the competition. “Do it for my team.”
Or in 2018 in Boston, where she won the all-round title with broken toes on both feet.
Or 2019 citizens, where Biles won her sixth U.S. all-around title hours after breaking into tears during a group interview in which a journalist revealed to her that a recent Congressional investigation concluded that USOPC and USAG “Knowingly hiding” Nassar’s abuse.
Or her masterful Olympic performance in 2016, when she won a record five Olympic medals and the world was still unaware that Biles and her teammates had been abused by their US team doctor for years.
Or one of the countless interviews Biles has given since 2018, in which she holds the USAG, USOC, and the FBI accountable for her and her sisters, or stands up for women, black women, and foster children.
Or how about a women’s gymnastics event in Tokyo last week. While former elites shared their own harrowing experiences of competing with injuries on social media and knew they were a danger to themselves, Biles resisted the competitive pressures before she was ready. Instead, she sat in the crowd cheering on her teammates loudly while they shone in her absence. She waited until after the competition ended to show how difficult the last week was for her. “It’s not easy to give up your dream of five years,” said Biles after the Beam finals.
When she returned to the competition on Tuesday, she was not a favorite to win gold on the bar. Out of caution, she downgraded her exit from a double-twisting double tuck to a double pike. And when she landed, smiled and reached for her heart in relief, she showed that being the greatest of all time is about more than medals.
For decades, Turner didn’t believe they had their bodies and their decision making. They didn’t think they had a voice. They didn’t think they’d be heard if they used their voice. They spent the years after leaving the sport recovering from the trauma they had suffered. So, to watch an elite gymnast – the Elite Gymnast – Make the choice that Biles made in real time and on the biggest stage in the sport was remarkable. She changed the game again.
It showed that a cultural change in gymnastics comes from the athletes. It is run by the athletes. And that moment cemented Simone Biles’ legacy as the greatest of all time.