SAN JOSE, Calif. – It was more than a decade ago when Nellie Biles looked out of the window of her Texas house and saw little Simone perched on the mailbox.
This was, apparently, something that Simone liked to do to entertain her friends.
“She would climb onto the mailbox,” says Simone’s mother, “and flip off the mailbox. I didn’t realize she was doing it.”
That day’s revelation, that double-take moment in the front yard, is one that hints at both the personality and the daring that will stun an untold number of new fans watching the U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials this weekend. To watch Simone, in a way, is to watch the sport with fresh eyes. There has hardly been a gymnast with the power and moxie of the 19-year-old gold medal favorite for the 2016 Summer Games.
“Simone is kind of in a league of her own” said teammate Aly Raisman, who was second to Simone in the P&G Championships last month and yet didn’t really come that close at all. “I don’t really consider competing against her because she’s just so good.”
Gymnastics usually brings a will-she-fall fear, a constant trepidation. That’s part of the drama of the sport. Yet Simone doesn’t really suggest any precariousness. That’s not to say nothing bad can happen because it always can.
Simone makes it easier to imagine the incredible than the unfortunate.
“I didn’t care when I was 10,” she told reporters here on Thursday. “I just threw my body around and hoped for the best.”
It often looks as if she’s still doing that now.
Perhaps part of that boldness comes from her unlikely start in the sport. A day-care trip took an unexpected turn during a heat wave and Simone’s group ended up at a gym. A note home soon followed.
“Would we be interested in having her enroll in gymnastics for cheerleading?” Nellie remembered. “That’s how gymnastics came to be.”
There was no grand plan for this. African-Americans are still rare in elite gymnastics. There was no Little League parent with bold designs. In fact, Nellie isn’t even Simone’s birth mother. She is married to Simone’s grandfather, Ron Biles, and the two adopted Simone and her sister when substance abuse left their birth mother unable to care for them.
Nellie grew up in Belize and came to Texas to study to become a nurse but had no sports background. Simone, who played no other sports, got into gymnastics because she was “hyper” (Nellie’s word) and because she loved it.
“I tried to get her to do something else and she wouldn’t,” Nellie said.
“[Simone] was very easy,” she added. “Always wanting to have fun. Not a pouty child.”
The ease – or apparent ease – is very much a part of Simone’s appeal. Her floor exercise is full of bounces as much as leaps, with the occasional sashay and the more-than-occasional smile. In fact, in the middle of a routine at the P&G Championships, she winked at Shawn Johnson, who was sitting in the stands.
(McKayla Maroney, whose unimpressed expression launched thousands of memes at the 2012 London Olympics, told the podcast “GymCastic” that she was “super jealous” of coach Aimee Boorman’s decision to allow Simone to smile.)
Judging is sometimes inscrutable and often frustrating, but Simone’s routines can make judging seem like an afterthought. A move named after her, which is a double layout flip and a half-twist into a blind landing, is too difficult for many gymnasts to even attempt.
The ebullience didn’t always reflect real confidence.
“Up until 2013, I saw a big struggle with Simone not being comfortable and confident with herself,” Nellie said. “She saw the other gymnasts as her idols. She thought she could never measure up. I think that was one of her downfalls – that she would never be able to reach that kind of potential.”
At around that time, Simone began to see a sports psychologist. It helped immensely to say “the same things we’ve been saying, but in different words,” Nellie explained.
Since then, Simone’s story has been one of dominance. She won the all-around at the 2013, 2014, and 2015 World Championships, and she could win up to five gold medals in Rio de Janeiro. The easy comparison is to Michael Phelps, who was as peerless in his prime as any Olympian, but Simone has a little bit of an extra spark in a sport where flair matters.
Phelps is always a headliner whenever he races for gold, but it’s Simone who might steal these Olympics from everyone else. Because with Simone Biles, it’s not a question of “Will she do it?” It’s more a matter of “What will she do?”