How Simone Biles overcame childhood hunger and sexual abuse to become world’s greatest gymnast

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Simone Biles has a ritual when she competes in gymnastics that she won’t be able to do at Tokyo 2020.

The world’s greatest gymnast is just 4ft 8in tall, but she is undoubtedly one of the biggest stars at this summer’s Olympics.

Biles has won a remarkable 30 Olympic and world championship medals and she is now aiming to become the first woman to defend the all-around title at the Games since 1968.

Simone Biles competes in the US Olympic gymnastics trials in June. Pic: AP
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Simone Biles is one of the biggest stars at the Tokyo Olympics. Pic: AP

But the 24-year-old American will have to achieve something she has never done before if she is to succeed in Tokyo – win a competition without her adoptive parents watching on from the stands.

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“I’m kind of nervous I might freak out over that,” Biles has said.

“I don’t feel set and comfortable until I find where they are in the crowd.”

Simone Biles' grandparents Ron and Nellie are her adoptive parents
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Biles’s adoptive parents Ron and Nellie will not be in the stands to watch for the first time

After lighting up the 2016 Rio Olympics with four gold medals, Biles’s path to Tokyo has seen her open up about her struggles away from the spotlight.

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In 2018, she wrote an emotional social media post revealing she was sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.

A year later, Biles spoke of her heartache after her brother was charged with murdering three people, before he was later acquitted.

The gymnast also shed light on the impact of going into foster care as a child and being adopted by her grandparents – crediting the experience for making her the athlete she is today.

• Biles’s childhood in foster care and adoption by grandparents

Simone Biles practises at the US Olympic trials
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Biles has opened up about her struggles away from the spotlight

Born in Columbus, Ohio, on 14 March 1997, Biles’s biological father reportedly left the family when she was very young and her biological mother Shanon struggled with drug and alcohol problems.

Biles has said she and her three siblings were often left hungry in her early life, with a stray cat who roamed the house given food over them.

“She always fed it but she never fed us,” Biles said of her biological mother.

After neighbours raised concerns with social workers, the gymnast, her sisters Adria and Ashley, and her brother Tevin were put into care.

Simone Biles
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Biles has spoken about experiencing childhood hunger and her time in foster care

“I don’t remember a lot about foster care,” Biles told her Facebook series Simone vs Herself.

“We were very fortunate we actually got to stay with our siblings because a lot of the time you either get regrouped from home to home to home, or you get split up.”

The four siblings “clung to each other” while in care because they were “scared of what was going on”, Biles’s younger sister Adria has said.

Biles revealed she used to run into her brother’s bedroom at night because she feared “he was going to disappear” the next morning.

She was aged six when she and Adria moved to Texas after being adopted by their grandparents, Nellie and Ron Biles, whom the gymnast calls her mother and father.

Simone BIles' adoptive parents Ron and Nellie and her sister Adria
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Biles’s parents Ron and Nellie pictured with her sister Adria (R)

Biles’s two older siblings, Ashley and Tevin, were adopted by their great aunt Harriet in Ohio.

The gymnast has said her difficult childhood set her up “for a better route at life”.

“I feel like I wouldn’t be where I am unless that turning point happened,” she added.

• Entering the gymnastics world and making ‘sacrifices’ in her youth

Biles’s life would change forever at the age of six as she first became involved in gymnastics.

During a day-care field trip, she watched other girls tumbling and flipping on trampolines and beams and began copying them.

She was so impressive that a coach sent a letter home asking her to join a class.

Biles began working with Aimee Boorman, who would go on to coach the US women’s gymnastics team at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Simone Biles talks to coach Aimee Boorman in 2015. Pic: AP
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Biles talks to coach Aimee Boorman in 2015. Pic: AP

Realising she wanted to take gymnastics seriously, Biles says she made “a lot of sacrifices” and gave up public school aged 14 to be home-schooled.

“I gave up all the school dances. I’ve never been to a prom. Never done a lot of those things that maybe most of your kids are doing or want to do,” the gymnast has said.

“But I fell in love with the sport. So I guess that’s what I got out of it.”

After competing in junior elite competitions, Biles made her senior international debut in 2013 – and it wasn’t long before she achieved success on the world stage.

Simone Biles pictured competing in 2013. Pic: AP
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Biles pictured competing in 2013. Pic: AP

That year, she won the all-around title at the US national championship and the world championship.

She successfully defended her titles in 2014 and 2015 – but it was the following year that saw Biles’s stardom soar.

• Biles reaches new heights at Rio Olympics

Biles dominated the 2016 Rio Olympics, winning gold medals in four events; vault, floor, individual all-around and team, while taking bronze in the balance beam.

Simone Biles won four gold medals and a bronze at Rio 2016. Pic: AP
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Simone Biles won four gold medals and a bronze at Rio 2016. Pic: AP

The success of Biles and her teammates saw them dubbed “The Final Five” at the Games, and she was chosen by Team USA to be the flag bearer in the closing ceremony.

But shortly after the Olympics, Biles was forced to defend herself after Russian hackers revealed she took a prescription medicine on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned drugs list.

In a message posted on social media, Biles said she had taken the medication since she was a child for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and insisted she had “always followed the rules”.

USA Gymnastics backed Biles, saying the gymnast had obtained the necessary permission to take the medication.

Biles did not compete at all in 2017, saying her body needed a rest, and she ventured into the entertainment world.

She co-wrote an autobiography that was turned into a made-for-TV biopic and appeared on Dancing With The Stars (the US version of Strictly Come Dancing), where she finished in fourth place.

• Biles reveals sexual abuse ordeal

In early 2018, Biles revealed she was “one of the many survivors that was sexually abused” by USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who has been accused by more than 330 women and girls, including her Olympic teammate Aly Raisman.

“I am not afraid to tell my story anymore,” she wrote in a Twitter post.

Biles’s mother Nellie later revealed her daughter had previously been “in denial” about the abuse by Nassar and would be “angry” when she approached the gymnast about it.

Biles said it finally dawned on her what happened when she was driving in her car, and she broke down in tears on the phone to her mother.

“She was just hysterical,” Nellie told the Facebook series Simone vs Herself.

“She didn’t say anything, she just cried and we cried together because I knew what it was she wanted to talk about. She didn’t have to say anything.”

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Gymnasts tell doctor: ‘How dare you’

Biles said the realisation of Nassar’s abuse left her depressed.

She recalls telling her mother and her agent that she was sleeping a lot because “sleeping was basically better than offing myself”.

“It was my way to escape reality,” Biles said.

“Sleeping was the closest thing to death for me at that point, so I just slept all the time.”

Nassar was sentenced in 2018 to more than 300 years in jail.

Biles has since said that if she has a daughter, she will not allow her to train with USA Gymnastics.

• Gymnastics return and trauma as brother faces murder charges

She returned to gymnastics in 2018, winning the all-round US national title and the world title in Qatar despite having a kidney stone – which she nicknamed the “Doha Pearl”.

Simone Biles pictured at the 2018 World Championships in Doha, Qatar. Pic: AP
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Biles pictured at the 2018 World Championships in Doha, Qatar. Pic: AP

Biles was again crowned all-around national and world champion in 2018 and 2019, as she became the most decorated gymnast in world championship history after clinching her 25th medal.

But while she was enjoying continued success in her sport, she faced heartache in late 2019 after her brother Tevin Biles-Thomas was charged with a triple murder.

He was accused after a shooting at a New Year’s Eve house party in Cleveland, in which three men were killed and two others injured.

In a post on Twitter following the charges against her brother, Biles said her “heart aches for everyone involved, especially for the victims and their families”.

“There is nothing that I can say that will heal anyone’s pain, but I do want to express my sincere condolences to everyone affected by this terrible tragedy,” she added.

Biles-Thomas was acquitted of all charges last month after a judge said prosecutors did not have sufficient evidence to convict him, NBC News reported.

• Sharing insights into personal life as focus turns to Tokyo Olympics

As the coronavirus pandemic threw preparations for the Tokyo Olympics into doubt, delaying the Games by a year, Biles continued to achieve success in the sport which has named four skills after her.

Biles won her seventh all-around title at the US National Championships before qualifying for this summer’s Games.

Away from the sport, Biles – a fan of the Hunger Games books and TV show Pretty Little Liars – has shared insights into her personal life with her 4.4 million Instagram followers by posting photos with boyfriend Jonathan Owens.

She reportedly began dating the American footballer, who plays for the Houston Texans, last year.

As Biles focuses on success in Tokyo, she could make history by becoming the first American woman in any sport to win five gold medals at a single Games.

But Biles – like every other Olympic athlete – will have to compete without her family cheering her on in the crowd as COVID restrictions bar spectators from attending.

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She had planned to retire after the Olympics, but later revealed she may continue to the 2024 Paris Games after being “guilted” into considering it by her French coaches Cecile and Laurent Landi.

Whatever she achieves in Tokyo, the diminutive star already stands tall among the greats of gymnastics – and across sport.

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