SIMONE BILES: FROM A GIRL WITHOUT A HOME TO AN OLYMPIAN ON RIO’S CENTER STAGE.
PRING, Texas — They were sitting in their living room in 2002, an otherwise ordinary winter evening on the Texas plains, when Ron Biles asked his wife the question—one that would ultimately alter the course of U.S. gymnastics history.
Oh, this was a heavy question, freighted with long-term consequences and implications that not even Ron could have divined. His wildest dreams simply didn’t stretch as far as an Olympic gold medal—or maybe even five—being tied up in what he was about to ask.
Here is what Ron knew on that cool night in the Lone Star State: His daughter from a previous marriage was struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. A mother of four children, she had recently lost custody of all of them, including five-year-old Simone and three-year-old Adria Biles. Their father had abandoned them years earlier.
The girls were in foster care in Ohio, living in a house that had a trampoline in the backyard. The contraption hypnotized little Simone—she would stare at it through the window and fantasize what it would be like to jump on it and fly into the sky. But she was forbidden to use it.
Ron’s four grandchildren from Ohio had previously lived with him and his wife, Nellie, for about a year in Texas. But it was always considered a temporary arrangement. The hope was that Ron’s daughter, Shanon, would overcome her addiction issues and take the children back.
She did for a short span, but now on this winter evening in 2002, a social worker in Ohio called Ron and told him Shanon was incapable of caring for the four children. They were going to be put up for adoption.
(Bleacher Report was unable to reach Shanon Biles for this story.)
Ron’s heart sank at the news. Those girls were the greatest joys in his life, the suns in his solar system. Sure, Simone was rambunctious—she loved to climb on the couch and leap off, as if trying to take flight—but she also was irresistible.
She constantly flashed her luminous, little-girl smile and batted those big brown eyes at her grandpa and grandma, which was what she called Ron and Nellie. Ron melted into a puddle of happiness every time Simone and Adria came running into his arms.
Now, after learning that his granddaughters would soon be heading for adoption, Ron asked Nellie if she would be willing to make a lifelong commitment to the girls.
“Would it be possible for us to take them in?” Ron said to his wife. “They need us.”
Nellie immediately knew what her answer would be, but she was momentarily devastated, the words like a punch to the gut. She’d already raised a family—her own two boys from a previous marriage were preparing for college—and the thought of becoming a full-time mother again at age 47 was overwhelming.
Did she really want to deal with two young girls? Did she want to walk them through those difficult, daunting adolescent years, navigating those minefields of body changes and boys?
“It was hard, but it was necessary to bring Simone and Adria here and to give them a home,” Nellie said. “So it was really an easy decision to have the girls come live with us.”
(The two older Biles children went to live with a sister of Ron’s in Ohio.)
On Christmas Eve 2002, the girls moved to the dusty Texas town of Spring, located 30 miles north of Houston. Nearly a year later, Ron, Nellie, Simone and Adria walked into a local courthouse. On the witness stand a social worker explained what loving parents Ron and Nellie were, and how happy and fulfilled the girls appeared to be. Without hesitation, the judge pronounced that the adoption was complete: Simone and Adria were now officially the children of Ron, an air traffic controller, and Nellie, a registered nurse.
Leaving the courthouse, Nellie told the girls, “It’s up to you guys, but you can call us mom and dad if you want.”
That night in her upstairs bedroom, little Simone stood in front of a mirror for nearly an hour, practicing two words over and over—mom, dad, mom, dad, mom, dad.
The next morning Simone was halfway down the stairs when she spotted Nellie. Smiling beautifully, her eyes shining, Simone asked, “Grandma, can I call you Mom?”
“Of course,” Nellie replied. “Of course.”
The two hugged, long and tight, their eyes dewy. Simone was finally home.
Her foundation set, the young girl was now ready to begin her personal journey to becoming the greatest female gymnast in the history of the sport.
It was just a moment, happening as fast and furious as a barn door blowing open in a springtime storm, but it distilled the raw power of Simone Biles—the source of her athletic brilliance.
It was mid-May and Biles was strolling across a mat at the World Champions Centre, a 52,000-square-foot gym with 50-foot ceilings in Spring. Owned by Ron and Nellie, who built the gym to be a source of retirement income, the WCC opened in November 2015 and is something of a gymnastics Shangri-la. It features multiple balance beams and uneven bars, two spring floors, a massive pit of foam cubes, a cafe, an observation room above the gym for adults, work spaces for parents and classrooms for families who home-school their children.
Biles had just finished a light workout. At 4’9″, 105 pounds, she has oaks for legs and her upper body bursts with muscles in places where most people don’t even have places. She walks with an athlete’s easy, cool gait.
As she casually made her way out of the facility that could house a handful of 747s, she suddenly took three quick steps forward and, with virtually no one in the gym looking, cartwheeled and tumbled forward. Then, as if on a pogo stick, she leapt high into the air. For one heartbeat, two, three—it appeared Newton’s laws didn’t apply to this 19-year-old young woman in a pink leotard.
Biles soared into the ether, a small rocket launching. At her apex—it looked like she could have been jumping over a pickup truck—she somersaulted forward. Her flip completed, she returned from orbit and landed without the slightest of wobbles.
It was an arresting, awe-inspiring display of athleticism—think of Michael Jordan taking off at the free-throw line in the 1988 Slam Dunk Contest—yet Biles pulled it off as if it was as commonplace for her as going on Snapchat. Once back on earth, she continued to walk across the gym with a megawatt smile lighting her face, another day at the office completed.
“Simone has the ability to be the greatest gymnast in the history of the sport,” said Bela Karolyi, the former U.S. national team coordinator who now mentors Biles. “She has more power and athleticism than anyone before her, and it’s not even close. She can do things that other past champions couldn’t have dreamed of even attempting. She’s on a completely different level. The world has never seen anything like her.”
Biles was too young to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London; athletes must turn 16 in the year of the Games to be eligible, and she was 15 at the time. But now she enters Rio as the leader of the American team that many analysts say is the deepest squad in Olympic history and should be a shoo-in to win gold in the team competition.
“This American team is the strongest the world has ever seen,” said Shannon Miller, who won a total of seven medals in the 1992 and ’96 Olympics. “You could probably send an entire second team of U.S. gymnasts to Rio and they would win silver behind the first team. That’s how far in front the U.S. is in women’s gymnastics right now.”
Biles is the overwhelming favorite to win the all-around title, and barring a major collapse she should cruise to gold in three individual events: the beam, the floor and the vault. Because her degree of difficulty in her routines in these events is so much higher than her competitors, she could falter slightly in each event and still wind up on top of the podium with a gold medal draped around her neck.
Her weakest event is the uneven bars, but she’s still capable of capturing gold on what is her least favorite apparatus.
“We joke that the rest of us are competing for second place,” said Aly Raisman, another member of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team who won two golds and a bronze at the 2012 Olympics. “Simone is just on another level.”
“Simone is the best I’ve ever seen,” said Mary Lou Retton, the 1984 all-around gold-medal winner. “She has redefined our thinking for what we thought was possible for a gymnast to do.”
How ruthlessly dominating has Biles been on the world stage since American Gabby Douglas captured the all-around gold in London four years ago? In October 2015 in Glasgow, Scotland, Biles won her third straight all-around title at the World Championships, becoming the first woman in history to pull off such a feat.
In June she cruised to her fourth consecutive national title at the P&G Championships in St. Louis, recording a career-high score (125.000) that was almost four points ahead of her nearest competitor—a blowout victory. And in July she took home the all-around title in the U.S. Olympic trials in San Jose, California.
To call Biles the Michael Jordan or Serena Williams of her sport could actually be an understatement. She isn’t just the gold standard in gymnastics; she may very well be the most dominating athlete—male or female—in any sport in the world right now.
“I don’t really view myself as the world’s best or anything like that,” Biles said as she stood in the WCC this spring. “I have great confidence in what I do and I’m really just competing against myself out there. I know my whole career is building toward the Olympics and it can sound like a lot of pressure, but I’m just staying focused on what I can control and do my thing. I’m not alone; my family is with me when I’m out there competing. And I do believe in myself. I really do.”