Gymnast Simone Biles captured America’s heart at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games where she flipped, twisted and vaulted her way to five Olympic medals, four of which were gold. While this was the first that most had heard of this 4’9” powerhouse, she had been dominating the gymnastics world for the past four years (Biles & Burford, 2016).
Simone’s story is not that of your typical gymnast turned worldwide sensation. At the age of three, she and her three siblings were placed into foster care due to their biological mother’s drug addiction. After bouncing between homes for a few years, she was eventually adopted by his maternal grandfather and his wife at the age of six. Desperate for an activity to expend their newly adopted daughter’s endless energy, they enrolled her in recreational gymnastics classes at a local gym. It was here that she captured the eye of a local coach and, as they say, the rest is history. Despite having began gymnastics almost three years later than her peers, Simone skyrocketed to the top of the gymnastics world over the following decade. Between 2013 and 2016, she did not lose a single all-around competition, amassing an unprecedented four consecutive national and three consecutive world championships (Biles & Burford, 2016). Her margin of victory in Rio was more than that at the past eight Olympics combined and she was labelled the most dominant gymnast in history (Allen, 2016).
Following the Olympics, Simone decided to take a year long respite from the grueling sport. During this time off, fellow gymnasts began to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, the American gymnastics national team’s doctor. Eventually, Simone joined what had become hundreds of other victims and stated that she too had been abused by Dr. Nassar (Associated Press, 2018). While Simone was far from the first athlete to accuse Dr. Nassar, she was definitely the biggest household name. She knew that the statement she made would be received by millions and decided to capitalize on the situation to make a positive change for her sport (Northouse, 2018, p. 95). Simone mentioned in her announcement that some of the abuse had occurred at the infamous Karyoli Ranch, the American gymnastic team’s designated National Olympic Training Center. She stated, “it breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing at Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused (Zaccardi, 2018).” For years, rumors of emotional and physical abuse at the ranch had circled, but USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body, had failed to take any action. This ended immediately. Within three days of Simone’s announcement, USA Gymnastics cut all ties with the Karyolis’ facility (Zaccardi, 2018). She had successfully used the traits of self-confidence and determination that had served her so well in the gym as her propellent to demand needed change (Northouse, 2018, p. 24)
Over the following months, Simone continue to use her public notoriety and platform as the world’s best gymnast to inspire change in the gymnastics community. She called out the organization’s president for failure to support victims or make any substantial changes to protect current and future athletes. That president resigned within two months (Armour, 2018). When her replacement was found to not only be a lawyer at the law firm which was accused of covering up the sexual assault scandal for USA Gymnastics’ top leaders for over a year, but to have publicly supported the boycott of Nike after the apparel company chose to air an advertising campaign with Colin Kaepernick, an NFL star famous for his fight against racial injustice, Simone tweeted, “*mouth drop* don’t worry, its not like we needed a smarter usa gymnastics president or sponsors or anything (Armour, 2018).”. That president resigned within four days (Macur, 2018).
Despite her sport’s disgraced governing body, Simone has returned to the gymnastics mat after her post-Olympic break and continues to dominate the field. At the most recent World Championships, Simone, competing with a kidney stone that had her in the emergency room the morning of qualifying, became the first woman to ever win four all-around world championships and the first American woman to medal in every single event at a single worlds (Associated Press, 2018).
While her sport’s governing body crumbles (they are without a president and declared bankruptcy in December), Simone shows no signs of slowing down in or out of the gym (Fitzpatrick & Schapiro, 2018). Her leadership, and that of other brave survivors like her, has been crucial to exposing the flaws of her sport’s national governing body. Simone Biles’ demands for a culture of respect towards athletes, transparency, and integrity from athletics’ highest governing bodies have been stated and she will not back down. Her perseverance will be a catalyst for change throughout the sporting world.
Allen, S. (2016, August 11). Simone Biles was historically dominant. Aly Raisman wasn’t bad herself. Retrieved from The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/08/11/simone-biles-was-historically-dominant-aly-raisman-wasnt-bad-herself/?utm_term=.d0f4f182ddfc
Armour, N. (2018, October 13). Simone Biles is not happy with Mary Bono, new interim CEO of USA Gymnastics. Retrieved from USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2018/10/13/simone-biles-critical-mary-bono-usa-gymnastics-ceo-nike-kaepernick/1632598002/
Associated Press. (2018, January 15). Simone Biles says Larry Nassar sexually abused her. Retrieved from NBC Sports: https://olympics.nbcsports.com/2018/01/15/simone-biles-larry-nassar-sexual-abuse/
Associated Press. (2018, November 3). Simone Biles wraps up remarkable worlds with fourth gold medal. Retrieved from ESPN: http://www.espn.com/olympics/gymnastics/story/_/id/25165931/simone-biles-wraps-gymnastics-world-championships-four-gold-medals
Biles, S., & Burford, M. (2016). Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, A Life in Balance . Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Fitzpatrick, S., & Schapiro, R. (2018, December 5). USA Gymnastics declares bankruptcy in wake of sex abuse scandal. Retrieved from NBC News: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/usa-gymnastics-declares-bankruptcy-wake-sex-abuse-scandal-n944451
Macur, J. (2018, October 16). Mary Bono Resigns After Just Days as Chief of U.S.A. Gymnastics. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/16/sports/mary-bono-usa-gymnastics.html
Zaccardi, N. (2018, January 18). USA Gymnastics closes Karolyi Ranch. Retrieved from NBC Sports: https://olympics.nbcsports.com/2018/01/18/usa-gymnastics-karolyi-ranch-closed-larry-nassar/