Simone Biles – ‘I Should Have Quit Way Before Tokyo'
New York magazine|September 27 - October 10, 2021
For Simone Biles, walking away was an act of self-reclamation.
By Camonghne Felix. Photographs by Ashley Peña

Simone Biles has a keen air sense, the ability to let muscle memory pilot against the brain’s logical judgment. She can clear her mind and think of absolutely nothing. Catlike in her reflexes, she locates herself in space and lands on her feet every time. This has been the mark of her genius since childhood, the thing that made her different. Watching her is like trying to catch light. You think, Did that just happen? She flies higher and is more nimble than her competition, with more room for failure because what she attempts is that much more difficult. She has beaten the records of her idols—Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Alicia Sacramone—and they think she’s the undeniable greatest too. She’s what superheroes are made of, except she’s made of bones and muscles that strain and break.

This time, though, the break wasn’t a bone; it was something in her spirit, an injury that could not be explained by cat scan or X-ray. The past few years had been the most trying stretch of her personal and professional life. In 2018, Biles revealed she had been sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar; the organization she was winning medals for had covered up his crimes. Still, going into the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021, after a successful competitive year, she expected things to go as they always did. Then, on the fifth day of competition, she pushed off the vault and discovered she couldn’t see herself in her head, couldn’t see the map of the floor in order to land. It wasn’t just unexpected— it was terrifying. She immediately withdrew from the finals. “My perspective has never changed so quickly from wanting to be on a podium to wanting to be able to go home, by myself, without any crutches,” Biles tells me over brunch at a hotel facing the south side of Central Park in early September.

Today, the 24-year-old gymnast is radiant and relaxed, her face lightly dressed with makeup. She’s wearing a crisp white T-shirt that looks like it was pulled straight off a Uniqlo shelf. She suggests mimosas. It’s 10 a.m., but why not? The ease of postseason Simone Biles is an art. In the months when she’s competing or preparing to compete, she’s focused, regimented. Today, she seems more open to going with the flow. Life is no less busy, but the stakes are much lower. She has just begun rehearsals for Athleta’s Gold Over America, a nationwide gymnastics tour that she stars in; in a few days, she will present at the VMAs and walk the Met Gala red carpet. We chat about matcha and Telfar. In conversation, she is reflective and warm and has a big-hearted laugh. It is easy to see why little girls scream when she walks into the room.

While Biles is generally honest about her feelings, she is skilled at presenting them in a rehearsed package. When we approach the subject of Tokyo, it begins that way. “You know, there have been highs, there have been lows,” she says, sending her gaze up toward the ceiling as she considers the stakes of the discussion. As she continues, she no longer seems interested in being quite as careful. “Sometimes it’s like, yeah, I’m perfectly okay with it. Like, that’s how it works. That’s how it panned out.” She flips her 1b-colored, bra length jumbo box braids over her shoulder. “And then other times I’ll just start bawling in the house.”

Biles is naturally inclined toward humility—she likes people to know she is a glass-half-full kind of girl—but when she talks about the narratives that critics spread during Tokyo, her indignation builds. She recounts the absurdity of some of the assumptions the public made about her performance, Twitter threads accusing her of giving up because she just didn’t feel like competing. “If I still had my air awareness, and I just was having a bad day, I would have continued,” Biles says. “But it was more than that.”

After training for most of her life for these Olympic Games, after a grueling season, after years of discussing her abuser publicly— how could anyone think the Games went the way they did because she just didn’t feel like showing up? How could they think that after all this time, all this effort, she would travel all the way to Tokyo to just quit?

“Say up until you’re 30 years old, you have your complete eyesight,” Biles says. “One morning, you wake up, you can’t see shit, but people tell you to go on and do your daily job as if you still have your eyesight. You’d be lost, wouldn’t you? That’s the only thing I can relate it to. I have been doing gymnastics for 18 years. I woke up— lost it. How am I supposed to go on with my day?”

BILES KNOWS SHE IS THE GREATEST. She has had four gymnastics elements named after her—one on beam, one on vault, two on floor. With a combined total of 32 Olympic and World Championships medals, she is the most decorated gymnast of all time. “It’s kind of unheard of to win as many things as I have,” Biles says. “I don’t physically understand how I do it.” She seems genuinely bummed she can’t answer the question. Is it mental? Is it physical? If she knew what it was, she could bottle it up and sell it. “No,” she concludes. “It was a God-given talent.”

For an athlete of Biles’s ability, the mind remains the most important organ. It tells the body what to do, and the body remembers. Anything that shakes that clear-mindedness is a life-risking liability. Biles has always been able to power through possible mental roadblocks in gymnastics and in her personal life. She powered through when she ended up in foster care after being taken away from a mother who struggled with addiction. She powered through thousands of hours of grueling training; through injuries like a bone spur in 2013 and a shoulder strain in 2015. She powered through years of sexual assault and through endless attacks on her spirit as she relived that assault publicly.

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