10 to Watch: For Simone Biles, 'medals are medals' but character transcends gymnastics

SPRING, Texas – There will come a time when the details of Simone Biles’ achievements have grown fuzzy.

Only the most diehard of gymnastics fans will be able to recall exactly how many medals she won at the world championships without doing a Google search. The general public will have forgotten the number of skills named after her. Many of the records that exemplify her greatness will have faded to the background unless someone comes along to challenge them.

This is not a reflection of Biles, or her accomplishments. It happens with all the greats, the downside of a world constantly looking at what’s next.

Much like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Billie Jean King and Serena Williams, however, Biles has etched herself into the collective consciousness for more than what she’s done as a gymnast. She has become a voice for those in her sport who have none. A role model emboldening girls and young women to celebrate their accomplishments.

10 to Watch: For Simone Biles, 'medals are medals' but character transcends gymnastics

And in a society that still refuses to acknowledge the full worth of Black women, she is strong and confident, unafraid to champion herself.

“At the end of the day, medals are medals,” Biles told USA TODAY Sports in April. “But being a voice, that’s something people always remember besides the medals. How good a person were you whenever you were an athlete. Your character.”

‘You guys should be punished’

Five years ago, Biles was, in many ways, going through the motions. The culture of USA Gymnastics under Martha Karolyi was exacting, and Biles and her teammates knew what was expected of them. There was little room for enjoyment, let alone introspection.

But her success at the Rio Olympics in 2016 – her five medals, four of them gold, tied Katie Ledecky and were second only to Michael Phelps – empowered Biles, in ways she is still discovering.

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A month after the Rio Games, Rachael Denhollander told the Indianapolis Star that Larry Nassar, a longtime team physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State, had sexually abused her. More than 350 women would come forward to say that Nassar had abused them, too, often under the guise of medical treatment.

Biles was one of them, revealing herself as a survivor in a January 2018 Instagram post.

More than any Congressional committee, outside investigation or class-action lawsuit, it has been Biles who has been able to force USA Gymnastics to make measurable changes. After stubbornly resisting for months the calls to stop holding training camps at the Karolyi ranch, USA Gymnastics cut ties three days after Biles said she didn’t want to go back there.

Her sharp criticism of then-CEO Kerry Perry’s ineptitude, and interim leader Mary Bono’s tone-deafness, hastened both of their departures. Then-U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun was forced to step down in early 2018 because of the abuse scandal.

“It’s been a lot,” Biles acknowledged. “That was the biggest struggle about (the delay of the Tokyo Olympics.) I thought I was going to be done with USA Gymnastics and the USOPC and all of that stuff. And now it’s just like, ‘Oh gosh, another year of dealing with them.’ “

But Biles also knows that her presence keeps the heat on USA Gymnastics and the USOPC.

Both organizations are desperately trying to move forward, touting the changes they have made and their commitment to athlete safety and well-being. But one pointed comment from Biles brings a laser focus back to their failings, along with a reminder that earnest promises, uplifiting social media posts and a catalogue of webinars aren’t enough to make amends for the hideous wrongs that were done.

“I think they’re just gonna try to hide it, sweep it under the rug and hopefully people kind of forgive and forget. Because if it’s not talked about, then they’re like, ‘OK, we can move on,’ ” Biles said. “Stuff doesn’t just blow over. In gymnastics, if we step out of the line so many times, do you think the judges are gonna be like, ‘Well, she stepped out three times, it’s over, who cares anymore?’ No, we’re punished. You guys should be punished.

“It’s as simple as that.”

Biles said she has become good at compartmentalizing, separating her love for gymnastics from the abuse and her anger at those who didn’t stop it. “Trauma vs. good,” she described it. Therapy helps, too, and she has lent her voice to the chorus of athletes, Olympians and otherwise, who are raising awareness about the importance of mental health.

There are times, though, when the burden she has taken on is overwhelming.

After she struggled at the second night of the Olympic trials, cameras showed Biles crying, and she later acknowledged that she was more emotional than in 2016 “because of everything I’ve been through.” It is not only her own trauma she is shouldering, but that of the hundreds of survivors who don’t have her platform or power. When she speaks, it is on behalf of those women, too.

“We’re not talking about anything crazy. We’re just speaking up for what we believe in and trying to have the wrongs be righted,” Biles said. “It’s things that should have happened years ago.”

‘Because I can’

Just as Biles no longer has patience for the feet dragging and excuse making on sexual abuse, she has little use for those who police the confidence and potential of girls and young women, particularly women of color.

When she returned to gymnastics in 2018, having taken more than a year off after the Rio Olympics, Biles realized more medals and titles weren’t enough to motivate her. What is one more world title when she already has 19? Another Olympic gold medal when she has four? Another all-around victory when she hasn’t lost a competition in eight years?

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Not being driven by shiny prizes freed Biles up to embrace what everyone else had already been telling her. Regardless of the measure – titles, margins of victory or skills that no one else even dared try – she is the best her sport has ever seen.

If she didn’t deserve to own her greatness, who would?

“I think it came for her with maturity,” Cecile Landi, who represented France at the 1996 Olympics and now coaches Biles with her husband, Laurent.

“I think she was at first not wanting to say it, maybe because she didn’t believe or feel like she could say it,” Cecile Landi added. “But women around the world are starting to speak up a lot more and I think she’s taking that chance. And to show, I’m a woman – I’m a Black woman – and I’m going to tell everyone I’m the best.

“I think it shows a lot to all our athletes here, our daughter, everyone around the world – if you’re good, don’t be afraid to say it.”

Male athletes, and men in general, sure aren’t.

If a Phelps, Usain Bolt, LeBron James or Tom Brady touts his success or acknowledges public recognition that he’s the best at what he does, the general reaction is to nod knowingly and celebrate his self-assuredness. No one sniffs and says he’s spoiled or arrogant. No one tries to “Well, actually” the titles and stats that are irrefutable proof of his otherworldliness.

Yet when Biles, Williams or the U.S. women’s soccer team tout their successes, the critics can’t wait to pounce.

“They’re like, ‘There she goes. She’s being cocky again,’ ” Biles said, rolling her eyes.

“It’s literally on the paper. I just don’t get how they don’t see that.”

Two years ago, there was sniping on social media about Biles wearing a leotard with her name on the back. She was called arrogant. A showoff. Never mind that the plan had been for all her World Champions Centre teammates to have personalized leotards, only to discover after Biles’ leotard was done and that one gymnast’s name wasn’t going to fit.

If people were going to criticize her no matter what she did, Biles decided, she might as well have some fun with it. At her next competition, the U.S. championships, she added the outline of a goat’s head above her name.

The goat – Biles has dubbed it Goldie – was featured again on her leotards for the U.S. Classic in May, and the national championships in June.

“It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m the best, I can just sit down and relax, stop working,’ ” Biles said. “I still work really, really hard for everything that I’ve done and that I’m trying to accomplish. I think that’s where you draw the line: I don’t just sit back and relax. I keep upgrading and I keep trying to improve myself and my gymnastics.”

This isn’t just about defending herself, though.

Biles worries about what little girls and young women think when they hear her accomplishments minimized or her self-assuredness criticized. She wants them to live boldly, to take pride in themselves and whatever it is they do, and fears that if they see the greatest athlete on the planet being diminished, they will think they need to lower their own voices or make themselves smaller.

“It’s important to teach our female youth that it’s OK to say, ‘Yes, I am good at this,’ and you don’t hold back,” Biles told USA TODAY Sports in October 2019, after she’d won her fifth all-around title at the world championships.

That also helps explain why Biles continues pushing the boundaries of gymnastics, when it’s clear International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) officials would rather she not.

The FIG acknowledged it didn’t give her double-twisting, double somersault dismount on balance beam full credit because it wanted to discourage other, less-capable gymnasts from trying it. The FIG hasn’t said anything yet, but it’s assumed a similar reasoning was behind the preliminary value assigned to her Yurchenko double pike vault.

Biles doesn’t need these skills to win. She is so far superior to everyone else, both in skill and technique, that she could do her routines from 2016 and still win by a point or two. Yet she persists in doing them. When asked why, her answer was simple.

“Because I can,” she said.

‘Tough but needed’

Despite her occasional protests to the contrary, Biles exudes a comfort in her own skin. Of course she has bad days and periods of self-doubt, and she’s disarmingly honest about those. But at 24, she has settled into who she is, and her actions outside the gym show an increasing recognition that she has a role to play beyond her sport.

She is fronting a 35-city, post-Olympic tour that, unlike past extravaganzas put on by USA Gymnastics, only includes women gymnasts. It also features women who were stars in college, showing that success in gymnastics can take many forms.

After her deal with Nike expired, Biles opted to sign with Athleta, a move that will give her more say in both the products and message she is endorsing. The first ads are heavy on the themes of sisterhood and empowerment.

She also has grown more vocal about systemic racism, using her social media platforms to call out the injustices people of color face every day.

“To have those conversations, it’s tough but it’s needed,” Biles said.

Even Biles’ parents, who still marvel at what has resulted from the little girl who used to bounce and flip around the house, say they have seen a change in their daughter.

“She is developing her voice (and) it’s not only in gymnastics,” her mother, Nellie, said. “She understands what’s going on, and she will definitely voice her opinion. Which I think is good. She should advocate for those who do not have a voice. And she’s been doing that more and more.”

What Biles does in gymnastics has brought her to this moment, poised to be the biggest star there is at the Tokyo Olympics. It is what she does beyond the sport, however, that will be her legacy long after the flame has gone out.

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