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Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved flipping, flying, and tumbling. Her name was Simone Biles.
Simone is an Olympic champion gymnast and first-ever woman to land a triple-double in competition on the floor. She’s world-renowned for making gymnastics look effortless, but Simone overcame all kinds of adversity. Listen to hear more about her adoption, struggles with ADHD, and time training with the Final Five.
Lindsey Vonn is a former alpine ski racer for the United States Ski Team. She’s won Olympic bronze and gold medals, two World Championship gold medals, and four overall World Cup titles. A New York Times bestselling author, she founded the Lindsey Vonn Foundation, which supports girls through scholarships, education, and athletics.
LINDSEY VONN Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved flipping, flying, and tumbling. Her name was Simone Biles.
At six-years-old, Simone was vivacious and confident. She lived in Columbus, Ohio with her three siblings named Adria, Ashley, and Tevin.
Simone’s home life changed when her mother’s drug and alcohol addiction worsened. She wasn’t able to care for her children. Simone and her siblings were put into foster care.
When Simone’s grandfather, Ron, and his wife, Nellie, heard that Ron’s grandchildren were in foster care, they were disheartened. Ron and Nellie rushed to Ohio to see the Biles children. They decided that the four of them would temporarily stay with them in Spring, Texas.
Simone loved Texas. One day, on a daycare field trip, Simone was introduced to a local tumbling gym. It smelled like chalk dust and feet, but Simone was instantly mesmerized.
She saw girls doing cartwheels and flips. Without hesitation, she fearlessly stepped onto a mat and performed a backflip.
A woman named Veronica, who worked at the tumbling gym, watched Simone. She noticed that Simone’s upper body strength was unusually strong for a six-year old.
“How long have you been doing gymnastics?” Veronica asked.
“I’ve never taken a lesson,” Simone replied, but she couldn’t deny the rush of excited energy coursing through her. Simone wasn’t just good at gymnastics, she was great.
And soon she would be the greatest of all time.
VONN Hi! I’m Lindsey Vonn, and this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Simone Biles.
VONN After Simone’s field trip to the tumbling gym, Ron and Nellie signed Simone and Adria up for gymnastics classes.
One day, Simone decided to practice flipping on the bars. The bars were very tall, and Simone was very small, but she used her strength to pull herself up.
Simone was confident and eager to do her best, but her hand slipped and she fell, landing on the floor with a loud smack.
Simone felt tears in her eyes. The fall had hurt, but she hadn’t broken anything.
Nearby, a woman named Coach Nicole shouted, “Try again!”
“No!” Simone exclaimed. Fear bubbled in her stomach. She didn’t think she could do it. Falling from the bars had felt so scary. What if she fell again?
“You can do it,” Coach Nicole told her. “Great gymnasts get back up.”
VONN Simone refused, but Coach Nicole helped her back on the bars. She assisted Simone, guiding her through the motion of the flip.
Once Simone was back on the ground, she realized Coach Nicole wanted to show her that even though she was scared of falling, she could do flips on the bars with a little bit of help and a lot of practice.
Simone learned that she shouldn’t let fear get in the way of trying a new skill. It didn’t mean she never fell again, but when she did, she would get right back on her feet.
VONN Ashley and Tevin wanted to go back to Ohio, but the thought of returning to Columbus sent a sinking feeling all the way down to Simone’s toes. She loved Ohio and her new gym. Simone didn’t want to go back, and neither did her sister, Adria.
Ron and Nellie loved Simone and Adria, and they desperately wanted them to become part of their family. A judge agreed and approved their adoption. It was official! At six years old, Simone thought her adoption day was the happiest day of her life.
That evening, Simone asked Nellie a very important question. “Can I call you mom?”
Nellie thought her heart might burst from all the love she had to give. “Of course you can.”
Simone was overjoyed. From then on, Nellie and Ron were officially Simone’s mom and dad.
VONN Simone had a natural talent for gymnastics, and every single coach at her gym saw her potential. She was at the top of her class. Her new trainer, Coach Aimee, told Simone’s mom that she had the drive and skills to become a professional gymnast.
By eighth grade, Simone was advancing quickly in her Junior Olympic gymnastics program. She had Coach Aimee to thank. And while she loved the way she felt when she was doing gymnastics, Simone knew that high school would really change everything.
When Simone went to enroll, a school counselor told Nellie and Ron that Simone could not attend high school. If Simone chose gymnastics, she would have to travel to participate in competitions. Those competitions would cause Simone to miss too many days of school.
This news devastated her. For years, she’d dreamed of going to high school sporting events with her friends, joining various clubs, and agonizing over a date to prom. Simone wanted to be a normal teenager, but she had to make a hard choice. Did she want to attend high school? Or would she put gymnastics first so she could strive to have an elite career as a gymnast?
VONN “You’re a very talented gymnast, and we believe you can go pro,” Simone’s mother told her. “But you have to make this decision. We can’t make it for you.”
Simone wasn’t just heartbroken that she couldn’t have both: She was angry. It wasn’t fair! But her heart was set on gymnastics. She decided to prioritize her dream and accept homeschooling.
Simone used to train 20 hours a week. Now that she was homeschooled, she trained for 32 hours a week.
Simone didn’t expect to feel so terribly lonely. When Simone practiced gymnastics on Friday nights, her friends attended football games. Simone knew she was missing out. She had given up everything for her dream. Had she made the wrong decision?
Coach Aimee saw Simone’s deep sadness. She feared Simone may be on the edge of burn out. Coach Aimee knew that Simone loved gymnastics. t She also noticed that Simone would sometimes appear tired or get frustrated if she didn’t execute a flip perfectly.
Simone had sacrificed so much. Coach Aimee decided she wouldn’t let Simone miss important life events.
Coach Aimee encouraged Simone to attend birthday parties and take vacations. Ultimately, Coach Aimee’s mental and physical breaks motivated Simone to become a better gymnast.
VONN Simone kept a journal, and inside her journal she wrote down her hopes, dreams, and ambitions. She even wrote about her crush on actor Zac Efron!
One evening, Simone wrote that she wanted to join the national gymnastics team, coached by Márta Károlyi. Márta had trained many Olympians in the past, including Nadia Comaneci. Nadia was the first gymnast to receive the score of a perfect 10 at the Olympics. The perfect 10 score system is no longer in place. Instead, the Olympics measures a gymnasts score based on content, difficulty and execution. This means it’s possible to score higher or lower than 10. If Simone was going to try and make it to the Olympics, she knew that Márta could help her.
Coach Aimee sent Marta a video of Simone’s gymnastics routine. After seeing it, Marta invited Simone to her developmental camp in Huntsville, Alabama.
Simone couldn’t believe it! She packed her bags full of leotards and then drove with Coach Aimee to Alabama. Simone was thrilled to attend Márta’s camp alongside many other potential Olympians. But it was hard work. Simone trained from eight in the morning until seven at night with just a three-hour break in between.
When the girls practiced and perfected their gymnastics skills, Márta would walk around and observe the gymnasts.
“I’d like to see her perform an Amanar,” Coach Márta told Coach Aimee.
An Amanar vault was a complicated maneuver that was favored in the Olympics for its difficulty. It required a running start into a back handspring, and then two and a half twists.
VONN Coach Aimee knew that Simone should work on her scores for difficulty. This included trying the Amanar vault, but Simone wasn’t eager to try it. The last thing she wanted to do was injure herself.
“No,” she told Coach Aimee. “I won’t do it.”
Márta noted defiance in Simone’s tone. In order to be great, Márta knew a gymnast had to be able to listen and learn from her coach.
When it was time to make selections for the junior national team, Márta did not pick Simone. Simone was overcome with despair by this rejection. How could Márta not pick her?
“You need to learn how to take direction from your coaches,” Márta told Simone.
Over the next year, Simone listened to Coach Aimee’s direction and worked hard at her Amanar vault. She was motivated to work harder than ever. She knew she could perfect her executions, and she was determined to prove it.
In 2012, when Simone was fifteen, it was time for Márta to consider selections for the U.S. Junior National Team. Simone performed the Amanar vault. She’d spent the previous year practicing it over and over, and she nailed it!
When it came time to pick her 2012 team, Márta announced she was only choosing six girls this year.
Simone held her breath. She’d worked hard on her Amanar vault, among other complicated flips, to attempt to improve her difficulty score. She’d even come in first place at several competitions. Simone wanted this more than anything.
Simone’s palms were sweating.
And then, finally, Simone’s name was called!
VONN After making Márta’s team, Simone had a new feeling of excitement in her belly. She had another dream. A big dream. She wanted to be a 2016 Olympian.
But soon, Simone encountered a new struggle. She was having trouble focusing in school. When she was at home, she couldn’t complete a simple chore without becoming distracted.
Simone’s parents took her to the doctor who diagnosed her with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Simone was crushed. She didn’t want medication to hinder her in the gym, but her parents and Coach Aimee promised it would help.
Simone’s ADHD medication did improve her focus, but she began slacking off at gymnastics practice. When it came time to perform her floor routine at the 2013 Secret U.S. Classic, she flipped through the air only to pitch forward and land on her knees.
Oh, Simone was so embarrassed. Worse, the fall caused Simone to hurt her ankle. Coach Aimee saw Simone limping and pulled her from the meet.
“We know you can do better,” Márta told Simone. “It is important to be prepared both physically and mentally.”
Simone was ashamed and disappointed that she’d let down Márta and Aimee. She vowed to practice harder than ever before. She wouldn’t let them down at nationals.
Luckily, Simone’s ankle injury wasn’t critical, but her parents thought it would be beneficial for her to see a sports psychologist named Robert Andrews to help her work through her mental blocks.
“I’m under a lot of pressure,” Simone told him.
“Were you having fun when you were performing before you got hurt?” Robert asked her.
Simone thought about it. “No. I was worried I wouldn’t live up to people’s expectations.”
Then, Robert gave her an important piece of advice. “Then go out there and make it fun again.”
Taking this advice with her, Simone won her first world championship title later that year.
VONN When Simone was eighteen, she was bursting with excitement at the thought of going to college. She’d toured the University of California, Los Angeles. She loved the grassy fields, the enormous classrooms, and the opportunities that awaited her there. This was where she belonged. She was sure of it.
“I’m going to go to UCLA!” she announced to her family.
But Simone was faced with yet another life-altering decision. Gymnasts were not allowed to commit and compete in college if they had plans to go pro and accept sponsorships from brands. Simone had to choose between UCLA and the possibility of going to the Olympics.
“It’s not fair!” Simone told her mom. She thought college would be her first opportunity to live a normal life.
More than that, Simone knew that most female gymnasts peak in their teens, while males peak around age 22. That also wasn’t fair. Men could go to college and then, after, have a professional gymnastics career. Simone would be nineteen at the time of the 2016 Olympics. If she chose college, would it be too late for her to go to the 2020 Olympics?
“We can tell you what we think, but we can’t tell you what to do,” her mom said.
Simone cried. She took a long time thinking it over. Deep down, she knew her priority was making it to the Olympics.
Simone decided to continue her path to becoming a professional gymnast. She was happy to find an online university that would work with her schedule.
VONN The 2016 Pacific Rim Gymnastics Championships was a very important event for Simone. Her performances would determine whether she went to the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
This was Simone’s biggest dream. Not only did she want to compete in the Olympics, she also wanted to experience the Olympic village with her teammates. She wanted that sensation of unity that one felt when competing as a team.
You can do this, Simone, she told herself. This is everything you’ve been training for.
She focused harder than ever before as she performed her floor exercise.
She channeled all of her agility and strength into her vault routine.
She remembered to have fun as she flipped on the beam.
No matter what, Simone thought, she had done her best. She was proud of herself. But as she waited for her results, she wondered…. would she be good enough for the Olympics?
After what seemed like ages, the results were in: Simone had won gold as the top all-around gymnast.
VONN It was official. Simone would attend the 2016 Olympics alongside Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, and Aly Raisman.
As red, white, and blue confetti rained down around the five girls, they hugged each other and cheered. Simone was so proud of how well they’d performed. She couldn’t help sobbing and laughing at the same time. She was overcome with emotion, and so were Gabby, Laurie, Madison, and Aly. They had done it!
Simone was about to live her dream.
VONN Márta told the Olympic squad that she would retire after Rio. Simone, Gabby, Laurie, Madison, and Aly decided to call their team “The Final Five” as a tribute to their coach.
Tears sprang up in Márta’s eyes. She was so proud of her girls.
Simone flew from Houston to Rio with her team a few weeks before the Olympics. This would allow them to adjust to the time change and get extra practice time in.
Before leaving, Simone left her family a note: I love you. I’m going to make you proud.
The Olympic village in Rio was incredible! There was a big pool and sleek work out rooms. There was even a 24-hour cafe that served everything you could ever want.
Finally, it was time for Simone to compete.
It’s just like practice, Simone told herself. Breathe. Do your best.
“You’ve got this, Simone!” she heard her mom shout from the stands.
VONN Simone smiled and assumed her position. She wore a red, white, and blue patriotic leotard with sheer, sparkly sleeves and a huge smile on her face. Her adrenaline was pumping furiously. She performed the Amanar vault the best that she could, but she didn’t stick the landing. That didn’t stop her from claiming first place.
Next it was time for her uneven bars routine. Simone flowed through her entire performance. Bars had never been her strength, but she was confident. When Simone saw the scores, she realized that she’d earned a lower score than she had hoped for. This put her behind the leader.
That was okay. Simone would shake it off and keep going.
Simone’s beam routine was next. She connected everything smoothly, feeling a rush of pride as she stuck the landing beautifully.
Her score put her back in the lead for the gold.
This was it. Her final routine. The crowd around her clapped and cheered as she started her floor performance. Simone confidently flipped and somersaulted across the mat, nailing each of her tumbling passes.
When it was all over, Simone heard the crowd erupt joyously before she caught sight of the scoreboard.
Simone Biles had won Olympic gold.
VONN In the stands, her mother and sister immediately began sobbing. Her father hugged them. They were so proud of Simone. Simone had made so many sacrifices that led her to the Olympics, but she wouldn’t have arrived without her family’s support. She valued them above anything else.
By pushing through her physical and mental struggles, Simone demonstrated that anything was possible. She was now the first black gymnast to win five all-around titles. With her strength and determination, Simone had made history.