“Time To Let Yourself Fly,” United Airlines’ Olympic campaign slogan, seems tailor-made for one of its most well-known ambassador—Simone Biles. Bars, beams, floor routines, or the vault, Biles literally flies, soars even. Her power is what defines her most. And that’s not just in competition, but in real life too.
Speaking with EBONY virtually just before boarding her United flight to Tokyo, Biles, a member of the EBONY Power 100 2016 class who graced her own EBONY cover that same year after winning four gold medals in the Rio Olympics in Brazil, was calm and and collected. That was not quite the case five years ago with Rio, she shared. “I was scared,” Biles said of her first Olympic experience. “I feel like there were a lot of outside expectations on me that I couldn’t control.”
In Tokyo, she’s a returning champion with 30 medals, on the verge of surpassing Vitaly Scherbo’s 33 medals and Larisa Latynina’s 32 medals, according to Sports Illustrated, to become the world’s most decorated gymnast of all time. While individual success is great, Biles is also serious about being a team player and leader, which is an important and rare position for this Olympics she shared. “It’s a different team than 2016,” she explained. “Most of them [referring to her Rio Olympics teammates] have left the sport and done other things. Some went to college and stuff like that. So now it’s a different team, but I’m really excited.”
This Olympics, Black women have been really feeling the heat. A swim cap designed for Black hair was banned. Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry was heavily criticized for protesting the National Anthem. To the dismay of many, Sha’Carri Richardson, who triumphantly won the Olympic Trials in June, was pulled from the U.S. Olympic track team after testing positive for marijuana and will not run in Tokyo. Some have even criticized Biles, who hasn’t lost in eight years, for being too dominant in gymnastics, prompting Jemele Hill to write a response in The Atlantic pointing out how the sport has tried to penalize Biles’s greatness.
“I try not to think about it because I’m still in the sport,” Biles told EBONY. “I’m still enjoying and loving it. And if we can bring home more medals for our country and for our team, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
It’s not easy she admitted. “I feel like it’s hard because we are on social media and our presences are very present, but I try not to focus on that. I kind of just try to go out there, and do my gymnastics.”
Taking care of her mental health, however, has become an ongoing secret weapon. “Anything that I have to deal with, I go to therapy,” she revealed. “In the beginning, I actually used to see a sports psychologist, and that really helped. And then as I got a little bit older, I started seeing a therapist. And I feel like it’s just helped my mental well-being in and out of the gym.”
Therapy has benefited Biles so much that she admitted that “it’s difficult seeing other athletes struggle with that.” Mental health is something Biles strongly feels “needs to be talked about a little bit more and that people should feel more comfortable because I, at first, did not want to go and I thought there was a huge stigma around it. But now, I feel like it’s pretty much an open conversation.”
Biles, herself, is more open all around. In her Facebook Watch series, Simone vs. Herself, she is so forthcoming, sharing moments with her boyfriend Jonathan Owens, who plays for the NFL’s Houston Texans, as well as her family in general, along with her journey to Tokyo. Because Biles’s biological mother had substance abuse issues, she and her three other siblings were placed in foster care. Eventually Biles and her younger sister Adria were adopted by their grandparents, Ronald and Nellie Biles, who are just “mom and dad” to them. There are people, past and present, however, who have tried to shame Biles behind her complex family dynamics.
“I feel like everything happens for a reason, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Biles pushed back. She is, however, grateful to have the opportunity to tell her own story. “If I’m the first person that gets to tell my story, from my point of view, then it gets a little bit better,” she explained. “Growing up everybody, got to tell my story for me. And once I got older, I was like ‘Okay, I can tell my own story from my point of view.’”
Biles doesn’t just tell her story for herself, but, for the many others her story can help. Her willingness to uplift others definitely played a huge role in her decision to open up about being among former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s many sexual abuse victims. “For me, I figured if it would help other people, then yeah, I’ll go and speak out for what’s right, because I also know what’s right from wrong,” she told EBONY.
A great friend and motivator, Biles played a direct role in helping Jordan Chiles getting to her first Olympics. While so many news outlets are running with Gina Chiles’s upcoming prison term for wire fraud, more of that spotlight should shine on Biles and Chiles’s friendship and the direct role it has played in Chiles’ Olympic success. When Chiles struggled with her training, Biles invited her to leave Vancouver, Washington and come train with her and her coaches at her family-owned World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas, just outside Houston.
“I’m really proud of her,” Biles beamed. “I saw the strength and the talent she had, and I figured it just needed to be used. So, when she [told] me about those hardships that she was having, I was like, ‘well, what if you just come train with me?’ . . . So she made that move as soon as she graduated, and now she’s going to the Olympics.”
Going the distance for other women is becoming one of Biles’s most well-known signature move. In April, she fueled the athletic sponsorship landscape shakeup by leaving industry leader Nike for a partnership with Gap’s female-centered Athleta brand, joining track star and six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix there. “That was super exciting,” she told EBONY of the move. “I feel like the brand supports me. It’s by women so it’s very empowering. I feel like they support me in and out of the gym for all of my dreams. And, I think our partnership so far has been absolutely amazing. We just did a campaign, kind of the team surrounding me who built me, because I feel like people tend to forget that. So it’s been really exciting. And, the partnership has just been outstanding.”
Intentional with whom she aligns her brand of her millions of Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok followers, Biles also has high praise for United, which has been the official airline of Team USA for 40 years, flying athletes, coaches, staff and equipment to the Games and competitions around the world. Prior to the kickoff of the Olympics in Tokyo, United featured Biles, alongside its other Olympic and Paralympic ambassadors, in an energetic commercial. “I feel like they believe in my dreams on and off the mat and they’ve always gotten me to all my destinations safely.”
Despite the obvious threat COVID continues to pose, Biles, who will be competing without her family and boyfriend cheering her on, as well as leaving Tokyo within 24 to 48 hours after she competes, is still excited to participate in something so much bigger than herself. “I feel [the Olympics] unite the world for a little bit of world peace for those three weeks,” she explained. Adding that “I feel like, honestly, it might be needed. We’ve had sports here and there through the off-seasons and the seasons, but to have the Olympics, it brings the whole entire world together.”
And the whole world will be watching Simone Biles as she flies into further greatness.
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies.