This summer, Simone Biles was supposed to be leading USA Gymnastics into its first Olympics since national team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual abuse. A dominant performance at the Tokyo Games -- now postponed to 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic -- would have meant more than just gold medals. It also would have been a reminder that the world's greatest gymnast came from a system that failed her and so many others -- and of the work Biles is still doing to demand that the system be held accountable.
But Biles doesn't need another Olympic gold medal to solidify her standing as the greatest or to amplify her powerful voice. The accusations against Nassar set off a reckoning within the culture that had enabled his abuse, led by longtime coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi. In the authoritarian system the Karolyis created, gymnasts were expected to be silent and obedient. Martha Karolyi ran the women's national team for 15 years and took the program to its greatest heights before stepping down after the 2016 Rio Games. With every gold medal, Karolyi amassed more unchecked power, and she wielded it to handpick her teams and control the athletes, their coaches and the organization that employed her. As 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber says, "She was the decider of our fate."
From the time Biles began training in Houston with her longtime coach, Aimee Boorman, as an 8-year-old, she and her family took a different path. Biles' story is proof that, contrary to the Karolyis' dictates, there is another way to win. Now, in partnership with the 30 for 30 podcast "Heavy Medals: Inside the Karolyi Gymnastics Empire," we present an oral history of how Biles' unique journey to becoming the world's greatest gymnast helped her claim her power, find her voice and change the sport.
In 2011, when Biles was 13, Martha Karolyi invited her to her first developmental camp at the famed Karolyi Ranch in New Waverly, Texas. That meant a foot in the door, an opportunity to impress the national team coordinator and her staff, and a first step on the road to the national team and perhaps, one day, the Olympics.
Aimee Boorman (Biles' longtime coach, 2016 U.S. Olympic head coach): When Simone became a Level 10 [the highest level before elite], we started talking about her becoming an elite. But when we first submitted videos to get her into [USA Gymnastics] developmental camp, the national team staff declined our request. We were told, no, she's not ready, even though she had all of these skills, because her uneven bars skills were too weak. So when we did get an invitation to camp, we were very excited and we tried to showcase what Simone was good at.
Nellie Biles (Simone Biles' mom): I thought attending this first camp was the turning point for Simone in her career, so I was very excited.
Boorman: Simone was praised by the [national team] coaches about what a great job she had done. Then Martha just railed at her, said she wasn't working hard enough and that she wasn't good enough. Simone was devastated because what Martha had to say to these girls made such a huge impact on them.
Simone Biles: It's hard being young and having someone tell you that you're not good enough when you feel like you're trying your hardest. I was not about that. That was not a lot of fun.
Nellie Biles: Simone forgot to tell you that it was definitely her attitude too. Martha did not care for that because if Martha said jump, you're supposed to say how high, and Simone was not playing the game at that time.
Val Kondos Field (former longtime UCLA gymnastics coach): A lot of coaches feel that you can't develop the greatest gymnasts in the world while giving them a voice. They have to be stripped and reprogrammed to be obedient, and that is how they handle the pressure of international competition. When they're hurting, when they're sick, when they're injured, it doesn't matter. You work through it, you figure out how to be invincible and we produce this army of the best gymnasts.
Boorman: The next camp was only three weeks away, so I talked to Simone and her parents. I never made any decisions without involving her and her parents. I think if she had the same experience at that next developmental camp with Martha, it would have broken her. It may not have taken her love out of gymnastics, but it would've made her not want to go back to the Ranch. We decided to decline the next camp. When we did, we weren't invited back [by Martha] for more than a year.
Nellie Biles: That was very disappointing, to know that Simone was told not to come back.
Simone Biles: Didn't faze me.
Nellie Biles: We were newbies. Simone had just joined the team, and there were a lot of unspoken rules. It was a matter of me learning what these rules were.
Boorman: When we shut it down, it took away that fear and anxiety Simone was having about being at camp. And it made her thrive. She found her power again, and she knew she could trust me and her parents could trust me.
Kondos Field: Honestly, the first time we saw a different way to win was with Simone and her coach, Aimee Boorman. I asked Simone, "If you had been coached by any of those other elite coaches, would you have lasted?" She goes, "Miss Val, it's not like I wouldn't have lasted. I would have quit." She says, "My parents wouldn't have allowed me to be treated like that." As important as Simone is, it's her support group that really needs to be examined as this case study of the greatest of all time.
Boorman: My philosophy had never been, this kid's going to be an Olympian. It was about nurturing an athlete who will someday be an adult and want to make a positive impact on society and leave gymnastics joyful. That perspective was unique. To be a great coach, you have to focus on raising a good person. To do that, you have to put your ego aside. Anybody who thinks, "How successful can this kid be?" Or "How successful can this kid make me?" You're in it for the wrong reason.
Biles and her coach trained, as Boorman says, "our way," outside of USAG's program for more than a year. Boorman encouraged Biles, a sensitive, giggly kid who didn't react well to strong-arm tactics, to have fun at practice. Those simple acts of support made an impact on the young gymnast. After Biles won two major titles and finished third in the all-around at nationals the next spring, she was named to the junior national team, which meant a return to the Karolyi Ranch for monthly camps. There, Boorman continued to coach Biles as she saw best, which meant protecting her from the overtraining that often led to injuries at the Ranch, and from Karolyi's comments about gymnasts' eating and weight.
Boorman: When you win, people can't ignore you.
Biles: Martha never denied talent. That's one thing I'll give her. As I was coming up, it was hard to see a successful outcome because you hadn't seen many gymnasts of the same skin color as me. I felt like wanting to go to the Olympics was harder. I always just said I wanted to do college gymnastics, but then Gabby [Douglas] won [at the 2012 Olympics], and you're like, "Wow, she looks like me. If she can do it, I can do it." That gives you an incentive to do better.
Maggie Nichols (2015 world champion, Biles' best friend): National team camps weren't like the training we did back home. There were a lot more rules and expectations, a lot more hours in the gym. The coaches were more strict and it was a lot more serious. We didn't have any cell service, which was a bummer because we were training like eight hours a day. It felt cut off from the world.
Boorman: Our whole thing, when we went back to the Ranch, was we're going to do it our way. We're going to take everything that serves us, and anything that doesn't serve us, we're going to throw it away.
Scott Reid (Orange County Register investigative journalist): Simone's stature gave Aimee some leverage in that she could say to Martha, "She's not going to do 20 reps like everybody else. She's got a bad Achilles. We're going to sit this one out." Martha finally had somebody that she couldn't -- someone who was bigger than Martha almost from day one.
Boorman: I wasn't willing to risk Simone's health because Martha wanted her to do one more. People say because you coach Simone, you could get away with whatever you wanted. No, it's because I coached Simone my way and even if Martha didn't like it, she respected it. I didn't allow her to be mean to Simone. We would walk away. We always told Simone, we can walk away whenever you want.
In 2013, Biles made her debut at the senior level and struggled. But instead of encouraging his daughter to work harder in the gym, Biles' father, Ron, reached out to a respected Houston psychologist to help his daughter open up, work through her anxiety and regain her confidence. In October, she won her first of five world all-around titles.
Biles also began sharing her life outside of the gym. She posted playful photos of herself with her friends wearing bikinis at the beach. She tweeted about National Pizza Day and declared her #mancrushmonday love for heartthrob Zac Efron. In August 2016, Teen Vogue wrote a story about Biles' favorite after-meet activity: eating a pepperoni pizza.
That might all seem like typical teen behavior, but the culture of silence permeating elite gymnastics demanded an unnatural level of secrecy about even the most mundane aspects of life. Fear and intimidation were the motivators of choice for most coaches, especially Karolyi, and that control extended into the athletes' personal lives. But Boorman allowed Biles the freedom to be herself, in the gym and online. And she protected her from Karolyi.
Jordyn Wieber (2012 Olympic gold medalist): Most of it was an unspoken understanding of what we were supposed to say. If you watch our interviews, it's cookie-cutter answers. There's no emotion. There's no personality. We didn't want to ruffle feathers and get in trouble. It was the good-soldier way to do things. We didn't know that we could express ourselves because we weren't expressing ourselves any other time. Not in the gym, not on social media. That is just the culture of gymnastics.
Boorman: I remember at Simone's first American Cup, we were at the hotel and she ordered a pretty big breakfast. It was right before training. And I got an earful from Martha that that wasn't what she should be eating.
Missy Marlowe (1988 Olympian): Simone was the first gymnast who dared put a picture of food on Instagram. That feels stupid to even say, but it's true.
Boorman: It has been a slow, steady incline of her social media posts. I do remember sometimes saying, "Eh, maybe you shouldn't post that, Simone." And she's like, "This is real life. This is what's happening." And if she weren't doing all of those social media posts and putting her life out there, then when she calls out what she considers an injustice on social media, it wouldn't have as big of an impact as it has right now. The world listens to her because she is honest about her life. Yes, I have a boyfriend. Yes, I dress in bikinis. Yes, I think this is an injustice in the world.
Marlowe: Simone's the first one to show pictures of herself out in a social situation, because everyone knows that if you're not at the gym, you're supposed to be resting. She was the first one to have a boyfriend in public. She's broken all the rules by being even a slightly normal person. Up until now, that probably would have gotten a gymnast kicked off the national team or her social media taken away.
Boorman: Maybe Martha became nicer to me because she respected that I was making decisions for Simone. But maybe it's because she didn't want to lose Simone as a national team athlete. She knew there had to be some give-and-take.
Nellie Biles: Martha was definitely aware of Simone's skill and how much she contributed to the team.
Simone Biles: [Martha] knew I could joke around more than the other girls and still be on in the gym.
Boorman: If there was a pizza post, Martha would make a comment like, "Oh, I see Simone's been eating a lot of pizza lately," and I would be like, "Martha, that was at a gym party and Simone had half a piece and walked away." There were lots of instances where I said, "Really, Martha?" in my head. But I would nod and say I would talk to Simone about it. And sometimes I wouldn't because I thought the request from Martha was ridiculous.
In 2014, Biles won her second world title. Her parents built a 50,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility in their hometown of Spring, Texas, so their daughter could train in a gym that matched her potential. Six days a week, five to six hours a day, Biles and Boorman trained at World Champions Centre, and once a month, they traveled to the Karolyi Ranch for national team camps.
Geza Pozsar (longtime national team choreographer): At the Ranch, [Bela and Martha] had total control. The [gymnasts] had no possibility to have their own choices, to buy food or drinks or sweets. They controlled when they sleep, the time they had to wake up, everything was under control.
Jessica O'Beirne (host of GymCastic podcast): One of the reasons I feel like Simone's so successful, she had the emotional tools to deal with the system in a way a lot of people didn't.
Nellie Biles: Martha had her rules. And I chose not to abide by the rules. This was my daughter, and I wanted to be involved. I did not care for one of the rules, that the parents were not allowed to be in the same hotel as the athletes. I broke that rule a couple of times.
Boorman: I figure Simone was lucky to have me most of the time. Because honestly there were lots of kids who could be a Simone but they're not nurtured the right way. Some of those athletes were just as talented, had the exact same body type, were more disciplined, were more successful early on. But they're not standing here looking at their second Olympics.
At the 2015 world championship in Glasgow, Scotland, the U.S. team won, anchored by Biles and her best friend and roommate, Maggie Nichols. Karolyi had a strict rule that parents could not stay in the same hotel as the gymnasts, nor see their daughters before competition.
Gina Nichols (Maggie Nichols' mother): The athletes were there for two to three weeks. To not even be able to see your child once, I felt like it was abusive.
Maggie Nichols: I still remember not being able to see our parents and me and Simone being in our room all the time. We're training so many hours, and we're so tired. Not being able to see your parents and get that hug, you never forget that feeling.
Biles: We only got to see our family after the competition. Martha only focused on the gymnast and that was it. Everything around her, it did not matter.
Gina Nichols: Then one night, my husband and I got the girls a couple of things they really needed.
Maggie Nichols: My parents brought us almonds. That's what I ran out of. So we met in the stairwell at the hotel so we could see them.
Gina Nichols: We literally went through a back stairwell to meet the girls and give them a couple of things and just say we love you and give them a hug. A back stairwell.
Biles' achievements earned her some latitude, but even she was not exempt from Karolyi's demand for perfection. At the 2016 Olympics, Biles led the U.S. team to a gold medal, won the all-around competition and took gold on floor and vault. But when she took bronze on beam, an event she was expected to win, Karolyi expressed only disappointment.
Boorman: It was the only time Martha did not go to the media mix zone [to give interviews] because she was so upset. Simone was like, "Martha's going to be so mad. She already yelled at me from the stands."
Biles: I wasn't ever afraid of the judges, the crowd, just Martha's opinion, which is sad. But her validation was everything. ... I looked up at Martha when I finished that beam routine in Rio and she kind of gave a look like, "Yeah, OK, Simone." And then when she came down, she said, "See, you can never lose a second of concentration." ... Nothing was ever good enough for Martha. She always thought you had room for improvement. That's what made us so good.
Boorman: I told Simone, "Don't worry about her. I will deal with her." And sure enough, we met up with Martha in the cafeteria and it started to escalate. Martha was saying that Simone was goofing off, which she wasn't. And I said, "If this had been anybody else on the team, you would be loving all over them for getting a bronze medal at the Olympics. But because it's Simone, you're coming down on her." That was kind of how it was the whole time.
A month after the 2016 Olympics, The Indianapolis Star first reported that two former athletes had accused Nassar of sexual abuse. Biles, who had taken a break from competing, stayed silent. But in January 2018, as Biles contemplated her return to competitive gymnastics with her new coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, she revealed on Twitter that she too had survived Nassar's abuse: "It breaks my heart even more to think that as I work towards my dream of competing in Tokyo 2020, I will have to continually return to the same training facility where I was abused." Three days later, USAG closed the Ranch facility and cut ties with the Karolyis.
Biles: Deciding to speak out, I didn't do that for myself or to be acknowledged by the whole world. I felt that if I sent that out, I would be helping others speak up. I just hit send as I was walking into the gym, put my phone down and started practice.
Wieber: I saw Simone tweeted something about how she never wanted to go to the Ranch again. And three days later, they closed down the Ranch. That showed me, OK, as Olympians we have a voice. We have power. If I can use my voice to try to make things better for the next group of athletes, I almost felt obligated to do that.
Nancy Armour (USA Today columnist): It's the first time she acknowledged that she'd been abused, and my heart just broke. Should they have closed the Ranch right away? Yeah. The fact that any of the abuse happened there, you got to shut it down. And the fact that it was such a triggering point for so many people for different reasons, whether it was Larry, whether it was feeling belittled, feeling silenced, feeling isolated, any of those reasons. It should have been shut down long before Simone said anything.
Boorman: I think the Ranch being shut down after Simone's tweet put a lot of pressure on her. Any time something happened in the sport after that, people would ask, "Hey, Simone, why don't you tweet and do something about it?" Simone's an influencer, but she's not a decision-maker. To put that on a 23-year-old who just wants to finish her career and win another Olympics is a lot of pressure. She has to deal with her trauma, the expectations of people wanting her to change the world and her training all at the same time. Plus, the normal stresses of life.
Nellie Biles: Knowing that [Martha] knew this information in 2015, did it ever cross her mind as a mother that she needed to do more to protect her athletes? For whatever reason it was done -- if it was medals, if it was money -- there's got to be something deep inside as a mother, knowing that certain things occurred and you could have prevented that.
Biles encouraged her new coaches to reach out to two of their former elite gymnasts, who revealed, after months of denial, that they too had been abused by Nassar. Biles also urged her "sister survivors" not to be defined by Nassar's abuse. When popular gymnastics magazine International Gymnast reposted a Daily Mail story on Twitter with the headline, "Simone Biles sets her sights on Tokyo 2020 after Larry Nassar abuse," Biles responded that she will "not be labeled by Larry Nassar's abuse" and demanded the post be removed. It was.
Cecile Landi (Biles' current coach): I reached out to some athletes [when the Nassar news broke], and they all kind of denied they'd been abused by him, the same as Simone. But when Simone came out, she asked us, "Have you talked to your athletes?" I said, "I have a few times." She was like, "Just do it one more time." So I did. And they both called me back and told me what had happened.
In October 2018, USA Gymnastics hired Mary Bono as interim CEO. Biles resurfaced a photo Bono had previously tweeted criticizing Nike's ad campaign supporting former NFL quarterback and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick, adding: "Mouth drop ... it's not like we needed a smarter USA Gymnastics President or sponsors." Bono stepped down just four days after taking the job.
Boorman: And the tweet about Mary Bono and Nike, again, boom. She's gone. I don't know what the exact reason was, but it sure looked like it had to do with Simone's tweet. Simone's sponsored by Nike, so she has a personal stake in that. Simone now knows that if she posts something, her influence is gonna have an impact.
Landi: Most of the time, if it's about gymnastics, she'll let us know if she's going to tweet something. Can I? Should I? Would you do it? If it's something else, it's really up to her. We told her that we'll be here to support her, whatever she wants to say. She really understands how powerful her voice is, and I think it feels good. It's also scary. She feels like she needs to do it for her and for the other girls.
Nichols: She's one of the most important people because of her platform and how many followers she has. Everyone knows who she is. Whatever she says, so many people are going to read it. When she speaks her mind, it allows other gymnasts or athletes to use their voice too.
At the 2019 U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Missouri, Biles won her sixth national all-around title. But it was her emotional answer to an interview question that went viral that weekend. "It's hard coming here for an organization, having had them fail us so many times," Biles said. "We had one goal. We have done everything that they asked us for, even when we didn't want to, and they couldn't do one damn job. You literally had one job and you couldn't protect us."
Armour: A report had come out a couple of days beforehand about the FBI and how the initial USA Gymnastics report [on Nassar] had gone nowhere. I think I asked Simone, "What was your reaction to seeing that report?" And she rightly asked [of USAG officials], "Why didn't you do your job?" She just got talking and was very emotional. And she broke down in tears.
Boorman: I could probably count on one hand the number of people that have seen Simone cry before that moment. So that's when you see it kind of breaking out of her.
Biles: It's very weighing. Still being in the sport, still competing for the U.S. and under USA Gymnastics. It's, it's just a lot. Whenever I speak out, people don't realize how triggering it is for me, but I put my mentality at jeopardy to help other people.
Throughout 2019, Biles maintained her dominance while not relenting on her public criticism of an organization that presents her as the face of the brand it seeks to rebuild. She continues to share her life, speak openly about her struggles and connect with her millions of followers online, mingling snapshots of her two French bulldogs with posts about Black Lives Matter, adoption advocacy and LGBTQ rights. With gymnastics competition postponed and the future of her sport uncertain, Biles' visibility and voice are as strong as ever.
Tom Forster (USAG women's high-performance team coordinator): Because of the times we're in and what we've experienced in our organization, the impact Simone's having has been tremendous. I don't know if people understand just how special she is and [that] this won't last forever.
Biles: I never thought I'd make such a big impact, but our elite team at my gym is almost all Black. We joke about that, and we're like, "Wow, look at us. We're really doing something good." And the kids are excited to see us in the gym. It's really neat.
Pozsar: She's been training the last three years in a different system, and she's still winning. So can it be done differently? Yes. With Simone Biles, I think there is a good chance for the sport to have a new life.
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