The worlds best gymnast on disgraced US team doctor Larry Nassar, her year out and Tokyo 2020
Simone Biles, four-times world champion, winner of three individual Olympic gold medals and arguably one of the greatest gymnasts of all time, is 4ft 8in, but this is not how she appears when in flight. In the hangar-like space of the World Champions Center, a gym complex in a suburb of Houston, Texas, she stands at the end of a padded runway. All morning, Biles has been hanging out with squad gymnasts, some as young as six, who are already training full-time at the facility and are so accustomed to seeing Biles, says her mother, they barely look twice. (Occasionally, says Biles, Well have a new kid come in and just stare. Other than that, its normal.) For her part, Biles trains with the offhand style of the preternaturally talented, that almost louche kind of grace you see in top tennis players knocking up or sprinters stretching before a race, and behind which lies extraordinary powers. And then she starts running.
Last year, Biles returned to gymnastics after 12 months off and she is still adjusting to the demands of her schedule. After the training session, we sit in the office that overlooks the vast floor of the gym, Biles with a tracksuit thrown over her leotard, and talk about what it is like to be 21 and at the top of her game, the pressures of being the best in the world and just how Biles knows where she is when shes airborne.
At times, she seems younger than her years, a product of the almost religiously sheltered upbringing of the professional child athlete. At others, she sounds like a 45-year-old woman who should be running for political office. Biles swept the board at the World Gymnastics Championships in Doha last October and has had two moves named after her (The Biles) one of which, on the vault, is described by the International Gymnastics Federation as a round off flic-flac with turn (180) on stretched salto fwd with 2/1 turn (720) off.
Yet her appeal beyond the world of gymnastics the reason I have heard so many women say, when her name comes up, Oh my God, shes amazing, is not just the physical and psychological courage necessary to excel at such a hard sport. What has become apparent, in the last year, is Biles moral courage. As an athlete, she is talked of in the same breath as Serena Williams, but the echo I find in her is of Muhammad Ali. In a sport whose governing body, USA Gymnastics, has been thoroughly disgraced by the conduct of its team doctor, Larry Nassar currently serving a life sentence for sexually abusing young gymnasts in his care, including Biles she will not bite her tongue. It really has to be something that sets me off, she says sheepishly, some way into our conversation. But once Im sure of something, Ill go ahead and say it.
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