“She is the prime example that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your circumstances are, you shall overcome any obstacle put in your way. This is for all the girls doing little somersaults in the yard and thinking they can’t do it. Simone has shown them that they can.” —Leslie Jones, comedian
There was a moment, right before Simone Biles took the floor to compete in her first Olympic event this summer, that makes her mom tear up when she tells the story.
“I am a basket case inside at all of her competitions,” says Nellie Biles. “But this was the Olympics—her goal. Her dream. What we had all sacrificed so much for. Simone said to me, ‘Mom, I know you’re nervous. You need to just relax. You need to know, Mom, that I am ready.’”
And she was: Biles, who had gone into the Games as the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history and the heavy favorite in Rio, nailed that event and went on to win five medals, with one impossibly difficult, near-flawless performance after another. Over those few days in August, more than 30 million Americans tuned in to watch her compete, while millions more replayed her routines on YouTube and everyone from Samuel L. Jackson to Hillary Clinton fangirled over her on Twitter.
Biles, 19, isn’t just another athlete, either: Journalists falter finding words to describe her.
“She’s special. Really, the best gymnast I’ve ever seen,” sums up 1984 gold medalist Mary Lou Retton. “You don’t teach what Simone has—a natural explosiveness and power.”
The secret of her success? Athletically, Biles is a perfect storm. She’s strong—strong enough to soar twice the height of her 4’8″ frame (which gives her unparalleled up-in-the-air time to fit in twists and flips). As a result, her routines are astonishingly difficult; one skill she invented—a double flip in the layout position, with a half twist and a blind landing—is now simply referred to as the Biles. She’s also determined, training 32 hours every week. And mentally, she’s tough. Her philosophy for dealing with the unimaginable performance pressure: “We’re out there for less than 10 minutes, and you prepare your whole life for this. I knew the expectations were there, but I can only control what I do, not what anyone else wants me to do. You just have to go out and have fun with it.”
She attributes those coping skills to the people who raised her. Her biological mother struggled with drug and alcohol problems. Biles spent the first few years of her life in and out of foster care until her grandparents, Nellie and Ron, stepped in and brought three-year-old Simone and her younger sister, Adria, to live with them, later adopting the girls. Biles has called them Mom and Dad ever since and gives them tremendous credit for her career. “I’ve been brought up to never take anything for granted and to always be the best Simone—the best version of myself,” says Biles. “From a very young age, they always believed in us and told us to believe in ourselves.”
Therapy taught her to trust her talent and enjoy the experience. And once that mind-set kicked in, Biles began winning everything in sight, including 10 world championship gold medals and the only guaranteed spot on the 2016 Olympic team. Since Rio, Biles has been hard at work at another project: writing her memoir, Courage to Soar, out this month. In it, she gives the inside story of how she went from foster child to Olympic champion, and what drove her to keep working toward her ultimate goal.
“It’s about my life, and me telling it,” she says.
Biles hasn’t decided if she’ll compete in the Tokyo Games in 2020; right now she’s too busy savoring her 2016 victories.
“When you stand up there on the podium, and the national anthem is playing, it’s surreal,” she says. “And then you realize all your hard work has paid off.”
Her Words to Live By: “I’d rather regret the risk that didn’t work out than the chances I didn’t take at all.”
Shaun Dreisbach is a Glamour contributing editor.