Simone Biles: On Top Of The World

By Joanne C Gerstner | Oct. 14, 2013, 8 p.m. (ET)
Simone Biles competes in the women's balance beam final at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at the Antwerp Sports Palace on Oct. 6, 2013 in Antwerp, Belgium.

Americans Kyla Ross and Simone Biles pose after earning silver
and gold, respectively, in the women's all-around final at the
FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships on Oct. 4, 2013
in Antwerp, Belgium.
 

To Simone Biles, everything is still pretty normal in her world. She’s 16, fitting in schoolwork, church, family and friends, and a little something called an elite gymnastics career.

But the reality is much different. In a span of three months, Biles has become the reigning world and U.S. all-around champion, a stunning sequence for a gymnast who just moved up to senior-level competition this year.

Younger gymnasts at Biles’ gym, Bannon’s Gymnastix in Houston, now freak out when they see her practicing. They want her autograph and can’t believe they see the world champion in front of them. Her Twitter and Instagram accounts are swelling with requests from fans around the world.

Welcome to Biles’ personal definition of normal.

“I wrote down my goals, short term and long term, at the start of the year, and I have worked really hard to make them come true,” Biles said. “That’s how I think about all of this. My mom and dad, my coaches, we all thought about what we wanted out of this year and how we wanted things to go. Things have gone really well, and I am happy.”

Aimee Boorman, who has coached Biles for nearly a decade, has seen her growth over the past year.

“Surprised isn’t really the right word,” Boorman said when asked about her feelings over Biles’ winning a world championship in her first attempt. “I was very pleased. I have always known that she has the natural ability to be a world champion. It just has taken time and patience to get to this goal.”

Biles came to Boorman’s gym during a day-care field trip when she was about 6 and shortly afterward, began training there. Today, Biles is coached by Boorman and Luis Brasesco.

Biles is definitely a cool customer, deftly walking the line between being a normal teenager and an emerging superstar in international gymnastics.

Her win at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships Oct. 6 in Antwerp, Belgium, was historic, as she became the first black gymnast to take the all-around title. Biles also took home a slew of medals after reaching all four event finals, earning a gold medal in floor exercise, a silver medal on vault, and a bronze medal on beam.

It was a tough competition, which included two U.S. Olympic gold medalists in the field. Kyla Ross, a member of the “Fierce Five” U.S. team that won the Olympic gold medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, earned the silver medal in the all-around. Another “Fierce Five” member, McKayla Maroney, won the gold medal in the vault.

But the glow of winning quickly evaporated for Biles when controversy struck. Italy’s Carlotta Ferlito finished fifth in the beam final, while her teammate, Vanessa Ferrari, was fourth.

Ferlito commented, on video after the event, “I told Vane (Ferrari) that next time we’ll have our skin black so we can win, too.” A Facebook posting, written in Italian under the name of an Italian Gymnastics Federation official, also contained more racially based questioning.

USA Gymnastics supported Biles and took issue with her race being mentioned. Ferlito has apologized, as has the head of the Italian Gymnastics Federation.

Ferlito apologized via Twitter saying, “I want to apologize with the Americans girls. I didn't want to sound rude or racist. I love Simone and I'm a huge fan of USA gymnastics.”

She added: “I've made a mistake, I'm not perfect... I didn't think about what I was saying. I'm just a human. I'm so so sorry.”

Biles’ mom, Nellie, didn’t know of the controversy until her daughter asked to talk to her about it. Nellie thought there was some online uproar about scoring. Little did she know this was much more serious, as Biles discovered from all the media reports and social media postings.

“I could see it did affect her, she was upset,” Nellie said. “My thing to tell her was, ‘You have to focus on your accomplishments, you have to be you.’

“‘Something great has just happened to you. People are entitled to their opinion, positive or negative, so don’t let them disturb you.’”

Simone Biles considers the matter behind her, and she’s looking forward to her new goals. This year, including the world championships win and drama, have all been valuable lessons in her maturation process.

“I think I have done a pretty good job with carrying myself,” Biles said. “I can’t do anything if people say things. I’m back training, and I want to set new goals and get even better.”

Biles’ parents try to keep her in a safe world, worrying about the increasing pressure and online scrutiny on their daughter. For now, they are not changing anything, pushing aside the social media friend/follow requests (her parents monitor her accounts), inquiries from agents, commercial offers and media requests. They want to stay on the same path, fighting to retain the normalcy in Biles’ teenage life.

The goals remain the same: getting better by training with the coaches she’s known her whole life, staying in school and continuing toward competing in college and the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.

“The reality of the sky being the limit for Simone is what we are looking at,” Nellie said. “This is just the beginning, there is so much more Simone can accomplish. We are ignoring everything that is not important.

“We want to let Simone keep excelling. We want to keep her happy, safe. This whole year has been so intense, so good, I can’t believe it. It’s a lot to take in.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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