Awesome Olympic Triumph: How the 4’8″ smiling girl overcame an appalling childhood
Awesome Olympic Triumph: How the 4’8″ smiling girl overcame an appalling childhood
When Simone Biles once more launches herself into the air in the women’s gymnastics vault final tomorrow, millions will watch with the utter disbelief this astonishing athlete has evoked throughout the Rio Olympics.
Small but perfectly formidable, the 19-year-old American has already won two gold medals and is on course for three more as experts chorus that she is probably the greatest female gymnast ever.
At least one viewer, however, will be watching with mixed emotions.
At home in Columbus, Ohio, her biological mother Shanon insists she is immensely proud of her daughter, but there will surely be regret that Simone’s extraordinary success is something she has absolutely no claim on.
In fact, if Simone had grown up anywhere near her mother, sporting history would be very different now.
Instead, she was raised by her grandfather and step-grandmother, the ‘Pop’ and ‘Mom’ she has been blowing kisses to in the stands during the Rio games.
The ‘science’ of Biles’s incredible success is fascinating experts and fans, who hail the 4ft 8in wunderkind as a perfect combination of small size, huge strength and mind-boggling agility.
But her history, say those close to her, is equally crucial to understanding her brilliance.
Unlike many stars whose abilities are nurtured and encouraged by devoted, ambitious parents, Simone had bleak prospects at birth.
She never knew her father, who abandoned the family years earlier, and knew her mother only barely.
Shanon was an alcoholic and drug addict living in Columbus who was incapable of looking after her four young children.
When Simone was three, she and her siblings went to live with her maternal grandfather, Ron Biles, his second wife Nellie and her two teenage sons from a previous marriage.
The couple — who both came from poor backgrounds and had worked immensely hard to get ahead — had been looking forward to retirement as their boys left the nest.
Taking on young children they hardly knew (Mr Biles had become estranged from his wayward daughter) was, they admit, a challenge — but not one they ever seriously considered evading.
Simone as a child, centered, with mother Shanon, sister Ashley, right, and brother Tevon, left
‘The social worker called and said the kids were in foster care,’ recalls Mr Biles, now 67.
‘I said: “Send them to me.” I didn’t want them to be raised by a stranger.’
And so Simone and her siblings came to live with their grandfather in Spring, a suburb of Houston, Texas, for nearly two years.
The arrangement was meant to be only temporary — their mother still had parental rights — and everyone hoped that she would soon beat her addiction problems.
The children even went back to live with Shanon, but shortly afterwards a social worker called Ron and Nellie again, this time to say their grandchildren were up for adoption.
Their mother, still hopelessly hooked on drugs, had been deemed unfit to care for them. It wasn’t an easy decision to take any of them back.
Mrs Biles, 61, then working full time as a nurse, had reached breaking point trying to hold down a job and look after so many children.
‘I remember wanting to just really disappear from that family, because I was so stressed; everyone needed me,’ she says.
However, the couple rose to the challenge. While Mr Biles, a retired air traffic controller, wanted to adopt the youngest child, 14-month-old Adria, it was his wife who insisted they also take in Simone — the second youngest — so the two girls could keep each other company. (Simone’s two older siblings went to live with Mr Biles’s sister).
‘Her mother had many problems with drugs or alcohol,’ Mr Biles has said of Simone.
‘We took them in as family because they were family. And just gave them what we had: that’s love and encouragement.’
The two girls returned to Spring on Christmas Eve 2002, this time permanently.
Mrs Biles says Simone had to be mentally strong from a very early age, saying she behaved like a ‘little mum’ in their home because her biological mother had never been able to look after them.
‘She made decisions for herself and her sister because this was all they knew,’ she explained.
‘She’s a survivor. She’s been a survivor from a very, very young age.’
On the day their adoption became official, Mrs Biles told the children they might like to start calling them Mum and Dad.
Simone spent the night in front of a mirror practising the two words she had barely used previously.
‘When I was younger, I thought every kid was adopted,’ she says. ‘I didn’t understand why people made it such a big deal. To me it’s just normal.’
As for Simone’s biological mother, Shanon, 44, admits she was furious at the time, accusing her father of ‘flipping a switch’ on her as soon as she signed the adoption papers to cut her off from her children.
Aware she was still using drugs, he told her not to visit or even call them as they got used to their new family.
‘It took me six years before I saw my children again,’ she says. ‘It was hard to give up my kids, but I had to do what I had to. I wasn’t able to care for them.
‘I didn’t understand it at the time, but years later, I understood why. I had to deal with me first.’
Shanon, who has two more young children now, is still smarting over her father’s actions, this time over what she sees as his insensitivity in publicly revealing the scale of her addiction problems.
She insists she has been ‘clean’ since 2007, accuses Ron of ‘throwing her under a bus’ and says he could have been ‘more classy about’ airing the family’s dirty laundry.
Inevitably, her eventual reunion with Simone was as delicate as performing a double back flip on a gym beam.
While Shanon claims she ‘loves’ her daughter and ‘can always pick up the phone and call her’, they speak only on birthdays and at Christmas.
They have met a couple of times, at Nellie’s instigation, but Simone has made it clear she sees her family as the people who brought her up.
‘I wonder what my life would be like if none of this happened,’ she said in June. ‘I want to know why my mother did what she did.
‘But those aren’t questions for me because that was her lifestyle when I wasn’t even born.’
Such self-containment and confidence serves her well in the gymnasium where experts say she shows no nerves.
In fact, giggly Simone so relishes performing in front of large audiences that she regularly winks cheekily at cameras in the middle of complicated manoeuvres.
Her adoptive parents remember her as a happy child, always smiling but hyperactive, leaping off the furniture to Nellie’s horror.
They first noticed her athleticism in their garden. She desperately wanted to join older step-brother Adam and his friends on a trampoline, but — remembering she had been banned from one at her foster home because of insurance issues — she was too worried to ask.
Eventually, Simone, then five, got up the courage to ask and instantly fell in love with it.
Adam recalls her immediately trying to copy his somersault and getting a bloody nose.
The second time she tried, it was almost perfect. ‘That’s the thing about Simone — she rarely makes the same mistake twice,’ he said.
She got her first taste of proper gymnastics the following year on a nursery field trip.
Watching the older girls for a few minutes, she was able to copy their cartwheels and somersaults across the gym mats.
The coaches were so impressed they gave her a note for her parents, asking if they would consider signing her up with them.
She was training with a coach by the age of eight and sister, Adria, took up the sport too.
By 13, Simone was so devoted to gymnastics that she persuaded her parents to have her home-schooled, so she could increase training to 32 hours a week.
Her parents, whose wealth increased after Mrs Biles set up a chain of nursing homes, gave up holidays to travel with Simone to competitions.
As an investment, they built a gym near their home where their daughters train.
Simone, says Mrs Biles proudly, has never missed a day’s training, even when injured or exhausted.
They have, however, tried to keep her feet on the ground as superstardom beckons.
Simone still lives at home, goes to church with them most Sundays (the family are Roman Catholics), does chores and feeds the family’s four pet Alsatians.
Although Mrs Biles admits Simone’s stubbornness can drive her to distraction, the pair have become inseparable. Simone says her mother’s soothing pep talks solved her early confidence problems.
‘I used to be so hard on myself and she’s like, “You know what, just go out there and be the best Simone that you can be. You don’t have to compete against anybody. It’s just you and yourself out there.” ’
Wise words. Experts say Simone is so far ahead of competitors she has only herself to compete against.