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Simone Biles competing in Tokyo spotlights another important subject: adoption and foster care

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TOKYO — There are any number of people who are excited that Simone Biles has decided to compete Tuesday in the women’s balance beam final, the last gymnastics event here.

Family. Fans. Sponsors. NBC executives.

After attempting just one ill-fated vault in the team competition, Biles withdrew from the all-around competition, plus the finals of the vault, floor and uneven bars, citing a need to concentrate on her mental health and find the focus to perform complex aerial moves.

Her presence has been missed. Including by groups that promote adoption and foster care and are near to Biles' heart.

Beginning at the age of 3, Biles spent time in the Ohio foster care system. Child services determined her mother, Sandra, was unfit to care for Simone, her two older siblings and a then-infant sister.

Simone had been discovered playing unsupervised with her only slightly older siblings in the middle of a Columbus, Ohio street. Neighbors already suspected that the four Biles children, including four-month-old Aria, were being left alone for long periods of time.

Their clothes were frayed and often dirty. Meals appeared to be skipped regularly. There was no structure. Both their mother and father were battling substance abuse.

Out in the street, though, was too much, so a neighbor went to investigate, rounding everyone back to safety. Sharon wasn’t home. No one was. Stuck without any other options, the neighbor reported the situation.

It began a multiyear process that ended with Simone and Aria moving in with and later being adopted by their grandparents, Ron and Nellie Biles, who lived outside Houston, Texas. Her two older siblings went to live with an aunt in the Cleveland area.

Every child in foster care and up for adoption deserves the chance to move in with a safe and stable family, from Simone Biles to non-gold medalists. (Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports)
Every child in foster care and up for adoption deserves the chance to move in with a safe and stable family, from Simone Biles to non-gold medalists. (Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports)

“My road to success began the day my grandfather and his wife officially adopted my sister and me,” Simone wrote in a piece for CNN promoting adoption.

“Although I was young when my foster care ordeal began, I remember how it felt to be passed off and over-looked. Like nobody knew me or wanted to know me. Like my talents didn’t count, and my voice didn’t matter. Finding a family made me feel like I mattered.”

That Biles went from such an at-risk beginning to become a five-time world champion and four-time Olympic gold medalist is the kind of story that the foster care and adoption community love being told to the huge audiences that tune into the Olympics.

So too does Simone, who works closely with them and has always been open about her upbringing.

“We are hopeful that with the spotlight on Simone during the Olympics, many more Americans will consider adoption,” said Kristen Hamilton, the strategic director of the National Council for Adoption. “Her story is one of many in which adoption into a nurturing and prepared family provided the security and love that a child was waiting for.”

Unfortunately, much of the attention on Biles during these Games has centered on her mental health and questions about whether she would or wouldn’t compete. Her inspiring life story hasn’t been mentioned much.

The love that Ron and Nellie have for their adopted daughters, however, is powerful.

“Simone is a sweet girl,” Ron Biles said. “She’s honest and caring. She thinks of everyone else first. Everyone knows her as a gymnast, but she is more than that. I’d be just as proud of her today if she wasn’t a gymnast. You know?”

The last thing Ron and Nellie thought they would become is adoptive parents. They were focused on raising their two then-high school age sons, and looking forward to traveling more when the boys went to college.

Then they heard from social workers in Ohio. Simone’s mother, Sharon, was Ron’s daughter from a previous relationship.

With times getting desperate and the four children likely to be split up inside the foster care system, Ron and Nellie decided to take them all in for a brief time to see if Sharon could win her battle against substance abuse.

“I knew something had to be done,” Ron said. “I knew I could let these kids get split up.”

When it became apparent something more permanent was needed, they took the two youngest. The older two were hoping to return to Ohio and live with family there.

Rather than an obligation, Ron and Nellie said they were blessed with love and joy.

“It is a wonderful thing,” Ron Biles told USA Today of adoption. “It gives you the opportunity to enrich the life of yourself and the child. And enrich everyone who is involved in your life. Raising kids is just a wonderful thing.

“You get to see them grow and be a part of that and I can’t think of anything more satisfying,” he said.

Simone would go on to become a champion gymnast, of course, but while that is great for the sake of publicity, it’s not relevant, adoption advocates say. Given the proper structure and environment to grow, they say, children have immense potential in whatever they choose.

There is no bigger spotlight Simone can place on the issue than by starring at the Olympics.

It’s certainly not why she is competing on Tuesday, but it is an added bonus.

“[The story is of] the life-changing impact of adoption in her family and what it meant for her to move from a trauma-filled life as a child to a permanent, stable, and safe home with her parents,” Kristen Hamilton said.

“Every child deserves that opportunity.”

They do. Future gold medalist or not.

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