Type Simone Biles' name into YouTube, click on any one of the thousands of clips, and you would be forgiven for thinking that video trickery had been used. The American gymnast seems to defy the laws of physics. Her triple twisting double is legendary. But, somehow, it’s all real, and on Sunday last week she stepped on to the podium in Stuttgart, Germany to collect her 25th gold medal. It solidified her status as the gymnast with the most World Championship wins of all time. But she’s also just 22, a young woman in the final years of her record-breaking gymnastics career, wondering what’s ahead.
‘I haven’t even had time to process it,’ Simone tells Grazia over the phone from her home in Texas. ‘But I knew that it was a huge thing that I’d done. Even now, I don’t know how to feel. I am honoured to have competed for my country, and I’m excited about it. I had the time of my life competing out there, but I feel like it’s a big thing to process.
She flew home last week to be greeted by friends, family and her French bulldog Lilo. She credits her ‘awesome’ support system for being ‘the biggest cheering squad’, but she has not been without her detractors. Like many women in sport, she has been called cocky for acknowledging her many successes. I compare her treatment to that of Venus and Serena Williams. ‘Most definitely, but we are turning it around,’ she suggests. ‘It’s getting better. Women are allowed to be a little bit more outspoken, and confident and comfortable in speaking out and saying, “Yes, we are the best women’s soccer team,” or “Yes, I am the best gymnast.” It’s a little intimidating, though, because you don’t know what people will say.’ To quote Simone herself, though, ‘The facts are literally on paper.’
I feel like people don’t realise all the sacrifices that we make for our sport.
As a child in the school gym, Simone was seen copying older girls do back flips and was given a letter to take home to ask if she would like to join in. From there, she was hooked. ‘My whole life was eat, sleep, breathe gymnastics,’ she explains. ‘So my idols were [US gymnasts] Alicia Sacramone and Shawn Johnson. But I feel like people don’t realise all the sacrifices that we make for our sport. It’s important to know that. In life, you have to make sacrifices, if you’re 100% in it. I’m not an overnight success.’
Simone’s focus is astounding. That’s clear in the arena, obviously, but even on the phone. Her first response to every question is a quick ‘Yeah’, as if acknowledging, processing and approving each challenge before answering succinctly and efficiently. Even as an interviewee, she does not waste a second, or step outside of the lines. In rare downtime, she likes to relax with friends by the pool, watch films with family and eat Belizean food (she holds dual citizenship in the country through her mother) and tells me that ‘gymnastics is not my whole life, just part of it’.
That statement will be tested very soon: she has said the 2020 Olympics will be her last. ‘For the sport I’m already a little bit old,’ she explains. I double check her age: 22. ‘Age is a factor, how your body holds up. We have to play it by ear. But, for me, the journey has definitely been worth it.'
Despite this uncertainty, Simone’s adamant about one thing: she wants to use her influence for good; it’s her key ambition when she hangs up her leotard. ‘I want to inspire foster kids in the community,’ she says. Simone was in the foster system before her grandfather and his wife adopted her. ‘Being a foster kid, I know it first hand, and I would love to be an advocate and a voice for some of the kids who don’t have a voice.’ Children seem to be her key philanthropic focus, hence a new collaboration with Lego on their Rebuild The World campaign. ‘Now that we have iPads and phones, kids need to be more creative,’ she says. ‘When I was growing up, I loved Lego. And, even now, I find ways to be creative, through rebuilding routines in the gym.'
The future is bright, she thinks. ‘I truly believe that women in sport will just get better and better, and they won’t be afraid to say that they’re good, and they’re dominant,’ she says. ‘This year has been a really good one, but I think that the years to come are something to look forward to.
With the precision and scrutiny that goes into every move, it is strange to think that she can’t possibly know what the years ahead will hold. But whatever her next steps, Simone’s status as a sporting icon will remain for as long as her trophy cabinet can handle the weight.
visit lego.com/rebuild-the-world for more.