Fresh from her record-breaking success at Stuttgart, champion athlete Simone Biles tells Stylist about the pushback women such as her receive for playing at the top of their game.
She’s the world’s most decorated gymnast with 25 World Championship medals to her name, but newly-announced and LEGO ambassador Simone Biles says she’s faced an uphill struggle to own her success – and the journey is not helped by an undercurrent of misogyny on social media.
“It’s taken me years to realise it’s OK, if I say, ‘yeah, I’m good at gymnastics and this is what I do’ rather than holding back and staying shy of it,” Biles tells Stylist, in an exclusive interview.
“Even now saying ‘I’m the best gymnast’, I still get a lot of backlash, saying I’m cocky or my head is too big. Social media plays the biggest role in that.
“I try not to let it get to me,” she adds. “Sometimes comments jab me here and there. But overall, I’m usually pretty good about brushing it off.”
Growing up, Biles says she was “too afraid to speak up” about her abilities; even as her unique level of skill and courage in the gym were becoming evident to everyone around her.
It’s only now, as a gymnast whose name is synonymous with record-breaking flair, that she’s starting to give herself permission to “embrace” her talents – “as long as I’m respectful and I’m humble about it”.
Her battle for self-acceptance is something that Biles recognises in other young girls, too.
“Once you find your voice, and you’re confident, you should take that and run with it,” she says.
“Because that will give you a good platform to start. A lot of kids, especially females, are afraid to say they’re good at something because we get a lot of backlash for it. And I don’t think that’s necessarily right. But as the years go on, it’s a proven factor.”
Biles’ quest to find her voice was emboldened by her decision to speak out against Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor currently serving a lifetime jail sentence for molesting athletes in his care. In doing so, she joined more than 265 girls and women who came forward with accounts of Nassar’s abuse.
“I too am one of the many survivors that was sexually abused by Larry Nassar,” the gymnast wrote on Twitter in January 2018. “There are many reasons that I have been reluctant to share my story, but I know now it is not my fault.”
Nearly two years on, Biles stands by her choice to share her story – viewing it as part of a pivotal journey to assert herself and be heard.
“I feel like women are feeling more empowered by speaking out, especially for what you believe in and just taking that stand,” she says. “I think that’s really important. More people are listening now to women rather than just brushing them off.”
There is still some distance to go, though, and Biles feels the best way to help other girls combat the self-worth barrier that she herself faced is “to lead by example”.
“In the gym and outside, I try to be the best role model I can be,” she explains.
The American athlete seems to have a default setting of infectious energy; and this endearing trait makes even the trickiest, most gravity-defying moves in her routines look easy.
Take the World Championships in Stuttgart earlier this month, when Biles extended her six-year unbeaten lead to secure five gold medal titles in just over a week’s worth of competition.
Performing a series of boundary-pushing twists and dips, some of which – like her signature “triple-double” (three twists with two flips in mid-air) – had never been seen before, Biles appeared full of breezy cheer.
Questioned how she can sidestep the pressure so effortlessly during such moments, Biles says: “I feel like it would be a little bit wasteful [to pay attention to fear].
“Once I’m out there competing, I try to really enjoy it because who knows when it will be our last time and we’ve worked so hard for that moment,” she explains. “You might as well make the most in the best time of it”.
That joyful demeanour may go some way to masking Biles’ gruelling routine, but don’t be fooled: this is a woman who works out six hours a day in the gym, followed by extra stints of recovery and rehab training.
Even after the stupendous display she put on at Stuttgart, her celebrations were modest by the standard of most. “I had dinner with my family,” she says. “So that was like our little celebration… usually after the World Championships, you’ll take a couple days off and then you get right back in the gym.”
In everyday life, Biles does not cut herself much slack as she gets to grips with “adulting” – “I’m still trying to focus on rebuilding myself or bettering myself” – but her downtime consists of a few select pleasures. To relax, she enjoys taking her dog for a walk, Netflix sessions with her friends (she’s a fan of Good Girls and Schitt’s Creek) and eating pizza, her go-to happy food.
As if she wasn’t busy enough, the gymnast has also taken on the role of LEGO ambassador for their new Rebuild The World campaign this month; an initiative that highlights the importance of creativity and play.
The athlete joins producer Mark Ronson and fashion designer Tomo Koizumi as a trio of “cultural creators” working with LEGO to help children creatively express themselves. The campaign aims to encourage the next generation to draw on their imagination to solve problems and build skills for the future.
Imagination is, in fact, something Biles often calls upon to build her record-smashing routines: “You can take skills out, put them back in and nothing is right or wrong,” the athlete says.
“I like to encourage people to be original and unique in whatever they do, and for me creativity plays a huge role in making my gymnastics feel distinctive – like my Triple-Double routine. The parallels with the endless possibilities of building with LEGO bricks are clear to see.”
So, how can we all be a little more Simone, and channel her unbeatable reserves of grace and strength – not to mention that magic ability to cut through the pressure and have fun? Biles has this advice: “Stick to your own path. Do what’s right for you. And just make sure you enjoy it.”
Images: Getty and LEGO