Simone Biles Soars, Lifting Belize With Her

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A report by Jeré Longman for The New York Times.

One o’clock arrived. Relatives gathered at a hotel bar to watch Olympic gymnastics on television. So did the first lady of Belize and 11 contestants in the coming Miss Belize pageant, wearing their sashes and carrying tiny flags. But where was Simone Biles?

The women’s individual all-around competition had begun 4,000 miles away on Thursday afternoon at the Rio Games. Biles, 19, was the heavy American favorite, but there was also anticipation in an unlikely place, the tiny Central American country of Belize, where she holds dual citizenship.

Phone calls were made. Television channels were changed. Beauty contestants were perplexed. Still no live gymnastics.

 Finally, after 30 minutes, the live feed began on Caribbean television. Biles had already performed her vault routine, but the delayed start did not mute the ecstatic cheering that greeted her second gold medal at the Rio Games.
There are big stories unfolding in Belize, including a Supreme Court ruling that affirmed gay rights and the cleanup from Hurricane Earl, which churned through last week. But interest in Biles also has resonated here, in the country’s economic capital, as evidenced everywhere from the prime minister’s residence to the shade of a local plum tree, painted purple and gold, where tour guides talk politics and play dominoes.

“We are taking all the gold medals she is going to win,” Kim Simplis Barrow, 44, the first lady of Belize, said with a smile.

Biles’s connection to Belize is as complex and ultimately elevating as the flips, jumps and windmill spins that have made her the best gymnast of her generation, perhaps ever.She was born in 1997 in Columbus, Ohio, to a mother who struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol, and to a father who was not part of her life. In 2002, Biles’s birth mother lost custody of her four children, who were placed in foster care and faced the possibility of being scattered by adoption.

 Instead, Simone, then 6, and her younger sister Adria, then 4, were adopted in 2003 by their maternal grandfather, Ron Biles, and his second wife, Nellie Cayetano Biles, who is from a prominent Belizean family of teachers and nurses and government officials. (Nellie is not Simone’s biological grandmother; Simone’s other two biological siblings were adopted by Ron’s older sister.)

Before, Ron and Nellie were known to Simone and Adria as Grandpa and Grandma. Now they are Mom and Dad.

Nellie’s mother, Evarista Cayetano, was a teacher and an owner of a grocery store. Her father, Silas Cayetano, also began his career as a teacher, then became an official in Belize’s fishing and agricultural cooperatives, and, later, a senator.

The original family home, at 118 Neal Penn Road, was made of wood. The family lived upstairs and the store was downstairs. It was a gathering place, where Silas Cayetano held court on weekends, settling neighborhood disputes, telling jokes, spinning stories.“It was community central, especially on Saturdays, when the chickens were fresh,” said Opal Enriquez, a cousin of Simone’s and the director of the Miss Belize pageant.

The Cayetano home had opened its doors to the nine Enriquez children, whose family came to Belize City from the southern town of Punta Gorda. Silas Cayetano had skipped high school, worked at a seminary and passed his teacher’s exam at age 19, relatives said. He encouraged his nieces and nephews, as he had his own four children, telling them that education was the most reliable way to escape poverty.

“Our uncle set the bar high,” Enriquez said. “Failure was never an option. He embedded in our brains that we were destined for greatness. Simone listened. We weren’t afraid to dream.”

When Ron and Nellie Biles adopted Simone and Adria, they had two sons of their own who were about to graduate from high school and leave for college. The couple wanted to travel. It would not be easy raising two young girls. But the girls needed parents, and adopting them was a “no brainer,” said Nellie, 61.

“When you grow up, I firmly believe that you see what goes on in the family, what your father and mother do,” she said. “And you tend to mimic what you see. It’s innate. It wasn’t even a question.”

 The extended Biles family is watching Simone compete at the Olympics across two continents and four time zones. Ron and Nellie and a dozen other relatives are in Rio. Others are in Spring, Tex., north of Houston, where the Bileses live and own a gymnastics center. Still more are scattered in Belize, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago.

“We’re trying to put Belize on the map as much as we can,” Nellie, a retired nurse, said. “Simone is competing for the U.S., and we’re not taking any credit away from that. But the fact that she has dual citizenship, I don’t see why we cannot celebrate her second country also.”

 And Belize seems happy to celebrate Biles. Formerly known as British Honduras, it gained its independence only in 1981. Belize has never produced an Olympic champion since it began competing in the Summer Games in 1968. A small contingent of three athletes was sent to Rio to compete with modest ambitions in track and field and judo.

During the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Belize did have a big moment, celebrating and claiming three gold medals won in sprinting by the American Marion Jones, whose mother was born here.

After winning the 200 meters, Jones held up a Belizean flag. Its coat of arms features two woodcutters, one with light brown skin carrying an ax, the other darker skinned and holding an oar, who symbolize the country’s ethnic diversity, history of slavery and its mahogany industry.

 Jones’s gesture brought international attention to Belize and widely endeared her to its citizens. The country later named her a sports ambassador.

Though Jones’s victories were nullified and her career disgraced by doping and a check-fraud scheme, which brought a prison sentence of six months, she remains popular and appreciated here. Belize’s national stadium, long being refurbished, is called the Marion Jones Sports Complex.

Belize’s relationship with Simone Biles is less entrenched so far, but also less complicated.

She is a bubbly teenager who has traveled here regularly to visit and to go fishing and snorkeling on vacation. Last summer, she attended the wedding of her brother here, posed for a newspaper photographer, and was spotted doing back flips off a pier. Upon arriving in Rio, she traded Olympic pins with a Belizean athlete.

“Simone said, when she gets married, it’s going to be in Belize,” Nellie Biles said.Ron Biles paused as he sat on a sofa at a hotel near Rio’s Olympic Park on Monday, his 67th birthday.

“It’s going to be a while longer,” he said as a group of relatives broke into laughter. “Another 16 years.”

As the Olympics approached, Simone was acknowledged by Belize’s ministry of youth and sports, interviewed on the popular Love FM radio, featured in the country’s largest-selling newspaper and followed widely on social media.

“People are very excited, because she has Belizean parentage, she’s a great athlete and she acknowledges her Belizean roots,” Adele Ramos, the assistant editor of Amandala, Belize’s largest-circulating newspaper, said of Biles. “She is the next best thing for us after Marion Jones.”

Yet some feel conflicted, not about Biles, but about the way Belize, in their view, does not fully support its homegrown athletes.

Karen Vernon, the theater director of Belize’s Institute of Creative Arts and the mother of two of the country’s top cyclists, said she was happy for Biles but did not “like the fact that Belize is waiting for her to win to claim her.”

 “We need to support our own athletes and artists,” Vernon said. “We have talent here.”

The Cayetano family was not athletic, Nellie Biles said the other day with a laugh, though her father did claim ornately to have been a gymnast and the source of Simone’s versatile skills.

“Everybody knows that Nellie’s father was a comedian,” said Florita Avila, 59, a cousin of Simone’s.

 As a girl, Nellie Biles said she played tennis and did the hop, skip and jump.

Ron, her husband, shook his head.

 “You played hopscotch,” he said.

His wife did not play sports but watched them on television, Ron added, before correcting himself and saying, “You didn’t have a television.”

It is a true story, Nellie said. In 1973, at 18, she left Belize to attend nursing school at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. Until then, she said, she had never seen a television in person, used a phone or flown on a plane.

“It was, needless to say, culture shock,” she said.

In 1976, she met Ron, who was stationed at Randolph Air Force Base outside San Antonio. (He is retired from the military and from his career as an air traffic controller.) In 1977, they married, and they have the playful banter of a couple who has been together for 40 years.

Was it love at first sight?

“No, oh no,” Nellie Biles said. “It was his good luck.”

Ron replied, “She’s still here, isn’t she?”

 When the adoption of Simone and Adria, now 17, became official in November 2003, the Bileses returned home from meeting with a family judge outside Houston. Nellie told the girls that they could continue to call her and Ron Grandma and Grandpa, or they could call them Mom and Dad.

Simone has said that she went upstairs, practiced in the mirror, then came down and said “Mom.” Nellie remembers Simone running back upstairs, probably giggling because it seemed funny. It was Mom from then on.

“I think these girls did more for us than we did for them,” Nellie Biles said. “Simone centralized us as a family. We come together and do things and go places because of Simone.”

While on a day-care field trip, Simone became interested in gymnastics. Her relatives in Belize remember her from those days as “little Simone,” a tiny girl in perpetual motion, a “spring chicken” and “a firecracker.”

And they say she came to possess the same discipline, insistence, confidence and expectation as Nellie, the eldest sibling in her own family, who with three partners came to own 14 nursing homes in Texas before selling them last year and turning her attention to operating a gymnastics center.

“She is Nellie’s child all over,” said Felix Enriquez, 47, Opal’s brother, who is scheduled to become the second in command in Belize’s ministry of defense. “A fair but stern personality. Always demanding that things be done in a proper way. A very big thinker. She doesn’t think small.”

Ron and Nellie Biles have lived in their current home in Spring, Tex., for six years. Ron, a native of Cleveland, said he had never been in the pool until he jumped in when the Cavaliers won the N.B.A. title in June, the city’s first major championship since 1964.

Would he jump in the Atlantic in Rio if Simone won gold in the women’s individual all around?

“I’ll probably just cry,” he said.

Nellie said she would watch nervously in the arena, grabbing someone to hold onto. Here, at the hotel bar, there was little tension, only clapping and cheering except for during Simone’s wobble on the balance beam.

“I was panicking at that one,” Felix Enriquez said.

Not to worry. Biles had a huge lead, which she secured on the floor exercise with elegance, strength and the stunning ability to land like a dart.

“Oh my God!” Simplis Barrow, Belize’s first lady, said, putting her hands to her face, pumping her fists, and photo bombing a family picture. “Woooh.”

“She has inspired us all,” Simplis Barrow said. “No matter where you come from, you can succeed. It is all right there in that small package.”

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