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Simone Biles made her Vogue cover debut on Thursday, looking powerful and strong for the magazine’s August 2020 issue.
Biles is powerful and strong not just on the outside, but on the inside as well. In an interview with Vogue’s Abby Aguirre, Biles discussed the difficult process of coming to terms with the abuse she endured from disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who is now in prison for life. She also talked about recovering from the postponement of the 2020 Olympics, which deeply affected her.
Nassar news led to deep depression
Biles, 23, is widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time. The world at large discovered her during the 2016 Rio Olympics, but for Biles, that was the beginning of a difficult time in her life. The news of Nassar’s widespread sexual abuse broke just a few weeks after the Olympics concluded, and Biles, on a whirlwind post-Olympic tour, wasn’t ready to process her own abuse yet.
“It didn’t feel like real life,” she told me of this period. “And there were little things that I did that I didn’t know why, but I felt like I was just trying to protect myself.” Such as? “Just, like, little quirks. Like I remember on tour, I would have really bad anxiety about nothing. Or like, walking down a hall, I feared that somebody was following me. I just had a lot of issues that were unexplained until I finally figured out why. The dots connected.”
Once she returned from the tour and the Nassar case began picking up steam, Biles refused to discuss it with her family, moving out on her own for the first time. Unfortunately, that didn’t help.
“I was very depressed,” Biles said. “At one point I slept so much because, for me, it was the closest thing to death without harming myself. It was an escape from all of my thoughts, from the world, from what I was dealing with. It was a really dark time.”
Coming to terms with her abuse
When Biles’ friend and collegiate gymnast Maggie Nichols spoke to the media about her abuse from Nassar in January 2018, things changed. For the first time, Biles was able to look at what she’d gone through with Nassar in a new light. For years she had denied it, but now she could finally recognize it for what it was: sexual abuse.
“I was reading Maggie’s coverage and it just hit me,” Biles said. “I was like, I’ve had the same treatments. I remember googling, like, sexually abused. Because I know some girls had it worse than me. I know that for a fact. So I felt like I wasn’t abused, because it wasn’t to the same extent as the other girls. Some of my friends had it really, really bad. They were his favorite. Since mine wasn’t to that capacity, I felt like it didn’t happen.”
Biles told Aguirre that the public’s perception of her played a role in her mental block, making it harder to accept what had happened to her.
“I felt like I knew, I just didn’t want to admit it to myself, that it had happened. Because I felt like, not that you’re supposed to be perfect, but I just felt like that’s what America wanted me to be — was perfect. Because every time an American wins the Olympics, you’re like America’s sweetheart. So it’s like, How could this happen to America’s sweetheart? That’s how I felt — like I was letting other people down by this.”
Picking up the pieces after postponed Olympics
When the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Biles took it very hard. Her mother, Nellie, told Aguirre how Biles reacted to the news.
“I spoke to my daughter, and she was just crying,” she told me. “And angry. And yelling. She was so distraught. Her emotions were all over the place because she did not know how she was supposed to feel.” Biles seemed to be going through stages of grief, Nellie said. “The loss is like she got a divorce or someone died, and she lost that person. That’s how deep I believe the loss was.”
Biles worked through most of her emotions about the postponement, but remained disappointed and a little sad about it.
“I felt kind of torn and broken,” she said. “Obviously it was the right decision, but to have it finalized — in a way, you feel defeated because you’ve worked so hard.”
For Biles, it’s about more than putting off her life plans and pouring another year into Olympic-caliber training. The postponement of the 2021 Olympics is wrapped up in Nassar’s abuse. Those emotions overcame her at practice one day. “We were gripping at the bars, and I just started crying,” she said. “Another year of dealing with USAG. That, I don’t know if I can take.”
Biles is moving forward, though. After spending months finding ways to stay in shape while quarantined at home, she’s getting back in the gym. “I’m starting to train toward it,” she said of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. And since USA Gymnastics declared bankruptcy, she’s planned her own post-Olympics tour: the “Gold Over America Tour.” The all-female 35-city tour will have a unique blend of entertainers and gymnasts. As long as the Olympics happen in 2021, so will the tour.
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