The Trials of Simone Biles: ‘I’m Still Stuck in My Thoughts All the Time’
The greatest gymnast of all time—with four gold medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio—opens up about “attending” college, training for 2020, and the villainy of Larry Nassar.
My heart is so full…but I also just wanna cry all the time.
These are not the sentiments one would expect from Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast to ever live. In public, the four-time Olympic gold medalist lights up every room she walks into or red carpet she struts down with her infectious smile and sports-legend charisma. She may be 4-foot-eight, but she is truly larger than life. (Having all-too-briefly basked in her presence, I can attest to this.)
Lately, however, the 20-year-old has been coming to terms with the abuse she suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor who stands accused of molesting over 265 girls—including numerous members of the USA Women’s Gymnastics team—and who will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Biles came forward with her story on January 15th, in a note posted to Twitter accompanied with the #MeToo. It read, in part: “Most of you know me as a happy, giggly, and energetic girl. But lately…I’ve felt a bit broken and the more I try to shut off the voice in my head the louder it screams. I am not afraid to tell my story anymore. I too am one of the many survivors that was sexually abused by Larry Nassar…After hearing the brave stories of my friends and other survivors, I know that this horrific experience does not define me. I am much more than this.”
When I ask Biles about the above tweets she posted on January 25 as the Nassar trial unfolded—which included several emotional impact statements read in court by his accusers—that wonderful smile disappears.
“It takes a lot,” she says. “I start counseling soon. For one human being to be put through so much, it’s very emotionally draining, physically draining, and it takes more energy out of you to almost hide it than it takes to give. I’m working on that part. Inside the gym is all good but outside I’m still stuck in my thoughts all the time. So I’m going to counseling to deal with that.”
Biles has a ridiculous amount on her plate right now. In addition to the Nassar trial, she is in the midst of training for the 2020 Summer Olympics (six hours a day) and is taking a business administration class at University of the People, an online college (three hours a day). There’s also a Lifetime movie on her, The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar, premiering Feb. 3.
With all that going on, she still managed to take some time to sit down with me in New York and discuss all things Simone Biles.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
How’s New York treating you?
It’s good. Busy…very busy!
I saw that Halsey gave you a shout-out at the recent Women’s March here in New York. She called you and the other gymnasts targeted by Larry Nassar “heroes” who remind her “why we rally.”
That was really cool. Her and G-Eazy are dating and they’re so cute.
I saw you retweet a message recently that really stuck with me. It said that the names for the USA Women’s Gymnastics teams, the “Fierce Five” and “Final Five,” have taken on a whole new meaning in light of the disturbing Nassar revelations: that 2012 were “fierce” survivors and 2016 will be the “final” group to have to suffer his horrific abuse.
It has a different meaning now. Now that he is locked up, he can no longer hurt any more gymnasts, athletes, anyone. At all. I think it’s cool how our name relates to that. I wish it would be a different reason, because we were Martha’s [Karolyi] “Final Five” and I wish we couldn’t relate the two cause it’s a very unfortunate situation and saddening to see how that correlates, but…it is what it is.
It’s hard to fathom how you were able to accomplish what you did—four gold medals, including the all-around and team golds—under normal circumstances, but under such horrific, stressful, chaotic circumstances, it’s almost unfathomable. I’m just a viewer, but gymnastics appears to require such laser-like precision and focus.
At a young age we’re taught to block out our feelings, because if you’re too emotional it gets into your head and you don’t perform as well, so we’re very good at compartmentalizing things. And that’s something nobody wants to think about—ever—so I’m very good at blocking out the bad thoughts.
I’m sure you saw that amazing GIF of Judge Rosemary Aquilina tossing Nassar’s letter away.
The paper! I did. That was great. She’d had enough. We all have.
I’ve always wondered, as someone just completely in awe of what you’re able to accomplish on the mat and beam, what you’re thinking while you’re flipping in the air…or if you’re thinking at all.
Me personally, I don’t like to think, because once you think you tend to overthink it. So I just don’t think. My head is completely clear. It’s like airplane mode—we’ve done it so many times, so we’re on autopilot.
Do you have any pre-competition rituals? Listen to any music or anything? I you’re your fellow Olympian Michael Phelps was listening to Future’s “Stick Talk” when he made the infamous “Phelps Face” that went viral.
[Laughs] No, I don’t do any of that. I’m not very superstitious or anything.
Are any of the other members of the “Final Five” going to be joining you in 2020?
That’s…that is for them to decide when they’re ready, if they want to continue the sport or want to retire.
The women of USA Gymnastics have, of course, endured so much. What are your thoughts on the culpability of USA Gymnastics, and how to prevent something like this from ever happening again?
The whole entire board resigned, so they’ll have to reform and rebuild their whole constitution and there’s still a lot of investigating that needs to be done, but to start from the ground you have to really tear it all down and start over.
I saw that you have a new, hunky boyfriend—sorry, I’m not sure if it’s “boyfriend” status or not—but has having him [Stacey Ervin] around helped you at all during this time?
It’s very hard for him to understand, but he’s from the gymnastics world so he knew the doctor as well. Nobody in my family is very happy with the way everything went down—as are all of the other families—but they’re here for us, and he’s an amazing boyfriend, so I’m grateful for him. I can’t ask for anything else.
You’re the first global ambassador for University of the People, the first ever non-profit, tuition-free American accredited online university, and are currently enrolled there taking classes. I’m sure every college would have loved to have you, so why this one?
It was a great opportunity. Because I do travel so much, to attend classes isn’t that easy for me and I don’t really have time for it, but with this online university I can take it with me wherever I go. It’s very accessible—and affordable as well.
And you’re majoring in business administration to…manage your millions? Just kidding.
[Laughs] I’ve always wanted to do something with business, so we’ll see where that takes me. I’m only taking one class right now because one requires fifteen hours a week, and I train from thirty-two to thirty-six hours a week, so I don’t really have time to take another class. Just one class at a time.
You’ve also helped establish the Simone Biles Legacy Scholarship Fund there, which is billed as being “designed to assist foster children”—like you—“achieve their college dreams.”
I wanted to help other kids that don’t have access or don’t have the opportunity to go to school. Once you get out of college, once you’re a graduate, if you don’t have a full scholarship you’re already in student debt, so it’s great to give people this who didn’t think college was possible for them.
Speaking of your childhood, when you look back on it are you sometimes in awe of how far you’ve come? It’s really something when you consider where your story began, in and out of foster homes before your grandfather and Nellie took you in.
Every now and again, I do. You have to set goals for yourself otherwise you’re going to stay in the same place—you’re going to be stuck—so going from a little girl to a young adult, I feel I’ve achieved a lot. But it came with a lot of sacrifices and dedication, so it wasn’t an easy road. I think everything happens for a reason though, and it was a blessing that I got the outcome that I did, so I can only be thankful and grateful…I do believe that everything happens for a reason.
Missing out on a normal high school life—parties and all that—was part of it, I imagine.
Yeah. A lot of kids just want to party and want stuff to come to them without having to work for it, so I had to give up a lot. I couldn’t go to public school, I’ve never been to prom or any school dances, so I had to sacrifice a lot.
Let me tell ya: prom is so overrated.
[Laughs] Yeah, but every girl loves to get dressed up every once in a while!
Yeah, but you were honored at the ESPYs! The parties you’re going to now are so much better.
[Laughs] I do get to go to some pretty good parties now…
How’s the 2020 Olympics prep going? Have you already started training?
Yeah, I’m already training. I was supposed to start November 1st but I was in New York for something else, so then I started November 3rd. December, though, was the anchor month where I was really back home and training full-time. Right now it’s everything; I’m back to full-speed where I left off. I’m at the gym for six hours every day. It’s an hour of conditioning and then forty-five minutes to an hour on each event.
Geez. I can last, like, 45 minutes to an hour total. How are you feeling about 2020?
It’ll come around fairly quick. I am excited for it, but you can never think too far ahead because you never know what will happen, so you have to take it day-by-day, meet-by-meet.
The USA Women’s Gymnastics team, it seems, will have managed to artfully dodge a Trump White House visit, right?
[Laughs] I wouldn’t say that!
Well y’all visited the Obama White House—and took over its Instagram, which was great—in September 2016, and since the Olympics aren’t till summer 2020, you could miss having to make that decision entirely, maybe…
[Laughs] We had a different president in the White House and we had the opportunity and honor to go visit, so…that’s all I’m going to say!
It’s in Tokyo in 2020, too. I’ve never been to Tokyo...except the airport. Very jealous.
The culture is great and the people are so nice there, and everything is really clean. It’s great there.
There’s this Lifetime movie about your life, The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar, premiering on Feb. 3. That must be pretty weird, having a movie attempt to tell your story.
It’s definitely pretty weird to have a movie about yourself! We’re going to have a watch party at the house—a little one, with family and friends and some really good food.
That sounds like fun. Did you have any input in the film or get to choose who played you?
I had a lot of input, especially choosing the actors that played my parents and myself. That was important to me. And whenever I was there visiting the set, I had a say in how it went down, and I got to read and change the scripts around so that the dialogue reflected things I’d actually say.
I wanted to circle back to 2020. The team won’t have to train at the Karolyi Ranch anymore, right?
Yes, we don’t have to return there anymore. They shut it down, thankfully.
With everything that’s happened, I still don’t really know how you do it—how you go out there and kick ass time and again. Your focus is just…incredible.
You know, people mistake athletes. They think we’re standing on these pedestals as goddesses but we have our own issues. They think we have these perfect lives because of what we’ve managed to accomplish, and most of us block out a lot of feelings because we’re told, as elite athletes, that we’re not allowed to feel the same things that other people feel or we’re not allowed to show emotions. People forget that we’re going through our own struggles. They think, you have money, you have this, you have that, how can your life be so difficult? So people tend to forget that we have serious issues we’re working on, too.