A report by Linday Crouse for The New York Times.
As we head into the 2021 Olympics, I have often recalled being a 12-year-old watching the American Olympic gymnasts at the 1996 Atlanta Games vault and soar and flip their way to victory. Those girls were just a little older than me, but they were so small. You could see their muscles moving under their skin.
I regarded them with awe. But thinking of them now, I also cringe. They were hurting themselves as America cheered.
Dominique Moceanu later said she was often limited to 900 calories a day during competitions, and she competed in Atlanta on a fractured tibia. Kerri Strug stuck her celebrated vault on a torn ankle. On the medal podium the girls stood together solemnly, like soldiers. The message to girls like me then was clear: Being the best takes pain.
Gymnastics has historically been a showcase for a certain kind of femininity: We reward girl athletes who are small, pretty and compliant, who smile disarmingly and don’t complain, while winning. And gymnastics — a sport rife with abuse of all varieties — has been a microcosm of what happens to extraordinary little girls when they grow up. They get discarded.
So I like to imagine a 12-year-old at home today watching Simone Biles command the mat. Biles, the reigning U.S. national champion and arguably the greatest gymnast of all time, shows that it doesn’t have to be like this, after all.
In a sport where you can begin to age out by the time you’re old enough to vote, she is 24 and at the top of her game. With that status, Biles is forging a new model for one of America’s most popular female sports — not as a prepubescent girl but as an athletic young woman. She isn’t just still good; she’s better than she’s ever been. And she appears to be having a great time.
She posts photos of pizza to her Instagram, and she posts her bathing suits and boyfriends, too. She wears leotards with little rhinestone GOATs (for the “greatest of all time”). She is dismantling unhealthy notions of what it takes to succeed and how a female champion is allowed to look. It’s helping redefine female power in sports.
“She has opened the eyes of so many kids that were told they could not do it or they were not good enough or they didn’t have the body type,” said her coach Cecile Landi, who competed in the 1996 Olympics for France.
Biles sends a message about what it takes to reach the most vaunted heights of gymnastics that is different from almost anything we have seen before.
“When I was an athlete, this wasn’t the case,” Landi told me. “I was told I was not supposed to have a boyfriend, I was not supposed to go eat a cookie or something like that. And I think she’s showing everybody you can have a margarita with your family and friends and you can also still be the greatest gymnast of all time.”
It’s no wonder gymnasts have gone to such extremes to succeed at the Olympics. It is one of the most popular televised events of the games — which makes it one of the most popular and visible female sports in the world. But that means the athletes are exposed to prime time TV and endorsement opportunities only every four years, and because the sport still lacks a strong pro league, as most male-dominated sports have, that fleeting visibility is where most of the money lies.
But refusing to go to those extremes has been a strategy for Biles. “At the end of the day, I’m just like you,” she told me recently, after she won her record seventh all-around U.S. title. “I want to be as normal as possible.” This approach has helped her sustain one of the longest reigns in gymnastics — maintaining both her physical strength and her relative nonchalance about her excellence, despite intense public scrutiny and pressure.
“If she felt that she could not be normal,” Landi mused, “I don’t think she would still be doing it.”
It’s not to say that every gymnast can extend her prime for as long as Biles — whose talent is exceptional — has, but she does offer a blueprint for how to try.
As I watched Biles compete this year, it occurred to me that perhaps the most lasting part of her legacy is starting now — in the team she’s building for herself. This may be most evident in her nurturing of the 20-year-old gymnast Jordan Chiles.
An underdog for most of her gymnastics career, Chiles joined the gym Biles’s parents own in Texas in 2019, to train with Biles. They worked on building her confidence as much as her skills. “A while back, I was about to be done with this sport, which is really crazy, but I didn’t feel like I belong,” Chiles told me. “But having somebody like Simone who can tell you that you belong here definitely makes the difference.”
At the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in June, Biles finished her routine on the bars, and then ran straight to Chiles, who was overcome and had started crying. Having secured third place in the all-around competition, Chiles had made the medal podium, changing the trajectory of her gymnastics career.
“I was telling her, ‘You deserve to be here. You’ve worked hard,’” Biles told me. “We’re going to keep going, and we’re going to do exactly that again at trials.”
At the end of the Olympic trials on June 27, Biles and Chiles were selected for the Tokyo team.
Biles has also started nurturing even younger gymnasts, particularly other girls of color. At the national championships, there she was caring for the 15-year-old Zoe Miller, who also trains at her gym. Biles tied a white bow around Miller’s bun while the girl looked ahead with a death stare that will look familiar to anyone who was once a teenage girl about to try something unfathomably hard.
“I’ve been through this process, so I know exactly what to expect,” said Biles. “So if I can shine a light and make them feel more comfortable, calm and confident, then that’s what I’m going to do, because I’m a veteran. I’ve been through it.”
One potential lasting disruption to the sport will be Biles’s Gold Over America Tour. Elbowing out U.S.A. Gymnastics for a tour presented by Athleta, the sponsor she just left Nike for, Biles has curated the tour’s list of women athletes, including several older postcollegiate gymnasts. In doing so Biles further establishes herself as the sport’s prevailing power broker. The 35-city tour, which will hit arenas across the United States this fall, emphasizes music and dancing — and fun.
I watch Biles perform and think about how lucky the little girls growing up watching her are to get that message: that winning can be about the joy of hard work, instead of pain.