Simone Biles: ‘I go to therapy, because at times I didn’t want to set foot in the gym’

Simone Biles four-times world champion, winner of three individual Olympic gold medals and arguably one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, is 4ft 8in, but this is not how she appears when in flight. In the hangar-like space of the World Champions Center, a gym complex in a suburb of Houston, Texas, she stands at the end of a padded runway. All morning, Biles has been hanging out with squad gymnasts, some as young as six, who are already training full-time at the facility and are so accustomed to seeing Biles, says her mother, they barely look twice. (Occasionally, says Biles, “We’ll have a new kid come in and just stare. Other than that, it’s normal.”) For her part, Biles trains with the off‑hand style of the preternaturally talented, that almost louche kind of grace you see in top tennis players knocking up or sprinters stretching before a race, and behind which lies extraordinary powers. And then she starts running.

Last year, Biles returned to gymnastics after 12 months off and she is still adjusting to the demands of her schedule. After the training session, we sit in the office that overlooks the vast floor of the gym, Biles with a tracksuit thrown over her leotard, and talk about what it is like to be 21 and at the top of her game, the pressures of being the best in the world and just how Biles knows where she is when she’s airborne.

At times, she seems younger than her years, a product of the almost religiously sheltered upbringing of the professional child athlete. At others, she sounds like a 45-year-old woman who should be running for political office. Biles swept the board at the World Gymnastics Championships in Doha last October and has had two moves named after her (“The Biles”) – one of which, on the vault, is described by the International Gymnastics Federation as a “round off flic-flac with ½ turn (180°) on stretched salto fwd with 2/1 turn (720°) off”.

Yet her appeal beyond the world of gymnastics – the reason I have heard so many women say, when her name comes up, “Oh my God, she’s amazing,” – is not just the physical and psychological courage necessary to excel at such a hard sport. What has become apparent, in the last year, is Biles’ moral courage. As an athlete, she is talked of in the same breath as Serena Williams, but the echo I find in her is of Muhammad Ali. In a sport whose governing body, USA Gymnastics, has been thoroughly disgraced by the conduct of its team doctor, Larry Nassar – currently serving a life sentence for sexually abusing young gymnasts in his care, including Biles – she will not bite her tongue. “It really has to be something that sets me off,” she says sheepishly, some way into our conversation. “But once I’m sure of something, I’ll go ahead and say it.

It is a reminder, watching the morning training session, that competitive gymnastics is a strange world in which to immerse young children. Female gymnasts are said to peak in performance at 16, the minimum age at which they can compete at senior level events, including the Olympics. Whereas male gymnasts bulk up with puberty and become stronger competitors, their female peers are generally considered more effective as children. “You want to be light in the gym, you want to be petite,” says Biles, who started relatively late, at the age of six. “For females, once you go through puberty, you get a butt, you get boobs, and that makes it harder to do gymnastics because everything is going in different directions.” She laughs. The sobering thing is that, while 16 is the official peak age, in reality many female gymnasts are considered to peak at 12.



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