Simone Biles poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 7, 2016 in Los Angeles.
It once was easier being Simone Biles.
Back three years ago, one year after the Olympic Games, the crowds were smaller and the competition thinner as the little-known 16-year-old won her first U.S. and then world all-around gymnastics championships.
“I was looking at my first year worlds, and my floor routine seems so easy,” she said recently.
Then the competition improved, the attention increased and Mary Lou Retton called Biles “the most talented gymnast I’ve ever seen” as the teenager rolled to her second consecutive U.S. and world all-around double.
And when Biles won those titles again in 2015, becoming the first woman ever to win three consecutive world all-around titles, the pre-Olympic hysteria officially began.
|Simone Biles competes on the vault during the women's team final at the 45th Artistic Gymnastics World Championships at Guangxi Sports Center Stadium on Oct. 8, 2014 in Nanning, China.
Now, as the 19-year-old Biles prepares to kick off her Olympic season in earnest at the Pacific Rim Championships this weekend in Everett, Washington, there’s no avoiding the barrage of questions that all go back to the same theme: Can she do it again with the world watching this summer in Rio de Janeiro?
“Three or four years ago I was kind of making a name for myself, so I really had nothing to lose, but I had everything to gain,” said Biles, who also won two team titles and nine individual event medals, five of them gold, during those three world championships. “I guess being a three-time world champion, I have stuff to lose if I make mistakes — there’s a lot more eyes on me.”
Biles says she’s been able to tune out all of the talk — for the most part. There was one competition in 2013 when she let people’s expectations slip into her mind. Later, in breaking down the experience with a sports psychologist, Biles explained that she wasn’t having fun that day because she was stressed out thinking about what people were saying about her.
“He said, ‘Do you ever do that when you compete?’” Biles said. “I said no, and he said, ‘So why were you doing it that day?’”
The message resonated.
“I kind of stepped back and thought about it, and yeah he’s right,” Biles said. “And ever since then, I just try to have fun and block out what everybody else says.”
That’s not always possible. Last year, with reporters around the world scrambling to ask if she could pull of the world three-peat, the noise was like a buzz saw in her ear.
“Even though most of the time I brush off the pressure, for some reason that stayed with me,” she said.
Yet we all saw how that turned out.
Going into the Olympic Games, where attention to women’s gymnastics spikes, Biles says she’s getting advice from Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, who led Team USA to an Olympic gold medal in 2012, as well as individual golds of their own, and are contending for spots on the 2016 team.
“(Aly) said it’s just like world championships except there’s a whole bunch of Olympic signs up, so don’t look at them,” Biles said cheerfully.
The easygoing Biles, who jokes that she came out of the womb with a smile, has some built-in advantages for handling the attention. While some women’s gymnasts compete with the expressions of scared deer, Biles steps on the podium and radiates confidence, showing — not telling — the audience that there’s nowhere else she’d rather be.
After all, as her sports psychologist reminded her, she’s at her best as a competitor when she’s having fun.
|Simone Biles competes on the balance beam at the 2015 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships at The SSE Hydro on Oct. 27, 2015 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Her coach, Aimee Boorman, goes a long way in fostering that confidence under pressure. Having coached Biles for more than a decade in the Houston area, Boorman has developed an approach that gets the most out of Biles’ physical gifts by embracing the gymnast’s personality. It’s a unique model in the often-strict gymnastics universe.
McKayla Maroney, a 2012 Olympian, expressed envy at this approach during a recent episode of GymCastic, a gymnastics podcast.
“I know Simone’s coach Aimee lets her smile, which I’m just like super jealous of,” she said.
All at the same time, those close to Biles have been able to instill a sense of humility in the history-making teenager, a quality that remains even as she embarks on her second season as a professional.
At the beginning of each year, Nellie Biles, Simone’s mom, has her daughter write down goals for the coming 12 months. This year, Nellie read Simone’s list and thought she was missing a page.
“She said, ‘Your goals, it stops at making the Olympic team,’” Biles recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah mom, and that’s where I’m going to leave it. And if I happen to make the Olympic team then I can make some new goals. I just don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.’”
The next step closer to making that Olympic team is this weekend, in the biennial competition between Pacific Rim countries such as Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore. Team USA, winners every time since the event began in 2000, is the prohibitive favorite, with Biles leading an all-star squad that includes Raisman, Brenna Dowell, Laurie Hernandez, Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith.
This is the first of four competitions that will really begin to set the stage for the Olympic Games, leading into the Secret U.S. Classic June 3-5 in Hartford, Connecticut, the P&G Gymnastics Championships June 23-26 in St. Louis and finally the U.S. Olympic Team Trials July 8-10 in San Jose, California. (In addition, much of the evaluation in U.S. women’s gymnastics occurs at the team’s monthly training camps at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas.)
For Biles, this weekend’s competition — with team and individual all-around competition on Saturday, and the individual event finals on Sunday — is her first of the year, an opportunity she is using to showcase her new floor routine and upgraded second vault.
But really, it’s the next stage for one of the sport’s all-time greats to take her next step into stardom, with every meet leading up to Rio bringing more attention that can never be taken away.
If you ask Biles, though, it’s simply the Pacific Rim Championships.
“Even this year before the Olympics … I have Pacific Rims, I have Classics, P&Gs, Trials, and some of those meets are two days,” she said. “So if you think about it like that, I have no time to think about the Olympics. I have another meet I have to focus on.”