“It was kind of surprising,” Biles says of her success back on the circuit, her modesty genuine. “Just taking [the] risk of allowing myself to be vulnerable in front of a crowd competing again was a win for me.”
Antwerp also offered a refreshing mix of nostalgia and normalcy. Biles competed in her first World Championships there 10 years ago but didn’t get to explore the city like she did this time around. She went to a café for an authentic Belgian waffle, “which was amazing,” she says, and explored the architecture and shops in Antwerp’s Old Town neighborhood. Like so many of the places Biles’s career has taken her, Antwerp is literally and figuratively worlds away from where she came from.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, to a mother who struggled to care for her children as she battled addiction, Biles spent her early years in and out of foster care. At five, Biles and her younger sister, Adria, were formally adopted by their maternal grandfather, Ron, and his wife, Nellie, whom she calls her parents, who raised the girls alongside their two boys in Spring, Texas, the Houston suburb Biles still calls home. (Her two older siblings, Ashley and Tevin, were adopted by Ron’s sister, Harriet.) When Biles was six, Ron and Nellie enrolled her and Adria in gymnastics classes.
“Honestly, for gymnastics, that’s kind of late,” Biles says. “Most people start in Mommy and Me classes as soon as [they] can walk. I truly was gifted, but I had to work for everything that I’ve had because of that delay.” Her parents had to work toward her success too. “Gymnastics is very expensive, and we’re so blessed that our parents could afford for us to do it,” she says, adding that it’s the only sport she and her sister ever pursued. Biles says she never worried about finances, but she’s still not sure if that’s because her parents didn’t have that concern or merely shielded her from any hardship. She is, however, keenly aware of the sacrifices her entire family has made on her behalf—“their time, their effort, [and] their money.”
“I just wanted to try to do college gymnastics,” Biles says, but everything changed after she watched Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross, and Jordyn Wieber dominate at the 2012 Olympics in London. “I saw those girls and I was like, I’m going to the same camps they’re going to; maybe I could do that.”
In 2013, when Biles was 16, she won her first all-around World Championship title, becoming the first African American gymnast to do so. Three years later, she stunned the world with her performance during the Summer Olympics in Rio, where she won four gold medals—an American record for women’s gymnastics at a single Games—plus a bronze. The rise to fame that accompanied her feat was exciting, intense, and a bit disorienting. It still is all of those things, Biles says.
“I think everyone wants to be famous, and then when it happens, you almost hit a wall and you have an identity crisis. You’re like, Am I made out for this? Why did I wish for this?” While the adjustment was challenging for Biles, it was especially difficult for her parents. They’ve always wanted to protect their daughter from invasive fans, reporters, and photographers, “but everything is kind of out of their hands,” she says. “I’m not saying that [people] scream and line up like I’m Taylor Swift, [but] I still get a lot of attention. When five people come up to me and they’re rushing for a photo, I just get a little flustered. My anxiety kicks in.” Nothing, then, could have prepared Biles for the aftermath of Tokyo in 2021.
The Games kicked off that July under unprecedented circumstances, and after a yearlong postponement. Athletes were largely relegated to their rooms and competition venues, and there were no spectators. Biles helped her team qualify for the all-around final and was the only athlete to qualify for the finals in all four individual events, but something was amiss.
On a vault, she completed just one and a half of an attempted two and a half twists and nearly fell when she landed. Afterward, she withdrew from the team competition, citing mental health concerns and a word that would become household-famous: the twisties, a disconnect between the mind and the body that causes a gymnast to lose track of motion through space. Though the average person watching from home probably chalked it up to nerves, “I knew right then and there something was wrong,” says Biles’s best friend, Rachel Roettger, from her home in Spring. The two met as six-year-olds in gymnastics class. The look Roettger noticed on her friend’s face wasn’t nervousness, it was worry. “I texted her, ‘Hey, what is going on? Are you okay?’ I thought she was hurt because there’s no way she should have landed like that. She texted me like, ‘I’m not hurt, but I’m just going through some things.’ ”