Simone Biles is the greatest gymnast in history. No caveats, no gender qualifiers, no getting around the fact that at 24, she’s broken just about every record there is to break. Twenty-five World Championship medals, four never-before-been-done moves named after her, and a performance level so fearless, it raised the bar for the entire sport. And she’s still at the top of her game, making her one of the best all-around athletes of our time, a competitor whose name will forever belong in the same breath as Serena Williams and Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps.
But for all the gold and GOAT talk, it’s easy to forget that this is a woman who redefined the limits of what the human body is capable of while carrying the mental burden of competing for an organization that failed to protect its athletes—including her—from a documented culture of abuse. And that was before the stress of 2020 hit and the fate of the Tokyo Olympics—which were meant to be Biles’s last—became uncertain.
But more on all that later. Right now Simone Biles is just like the rest of us—signing onto Zoom from home, waiting to get back out there.
During the last year, Biles used her unexpected downtime to buy her own house in Texas, a space she designed for her and her two Frenchies, Lilo and Rambo. This is where she’s sitting when we virtually meet, settled comfortably in a sun-filled room, a loose gray sweater wrapped around her shoulders, at ease in the way we really only ever are in our own space.
Biles spent most of quarantine here during the early, anxious days of the pandemic, but while we were baking banana bread and tie-dyeing sweatshirts, she was grappling with the fact that her chance to finish the career she’d sacrificed her entire life for might be stolen by the pandemic. Navigating a postponement would mean another year of pushing her body to its limit; and Biles’s job relies on her body—a finely calibrated machine conditioned by thousands of hours of workouts to peak at precisely the right moment every four years.
Then it became official: In late March, Texas went under total lockdown. No more training. For seven weeks Biles sat idle, weighing how to commit herself physically and mentally to the uncertainty. It took a toll. “I got to process all the emotions,” she says. “I got to go through being angry, sad, upset, happy, annoyed. I got to go through all of it by myself, without anybody telling me what to feel.”