One Monday morning early in this Olympic year, on no particularly important day with nothing particularly important on the schedule, the world’s best female gymnast — perhaps the best gymnast in history — walked out of her bedroom and into the kitchen.
She sat at the kitchen counter, put her head in her hands, and sighed.
The Rio Games were more than six months away, which made this another day of keeping her mind from drifting into dangerous territory.
“I’m not thinking about being in the Olympics,” the gymnast, Simone Biles, said. “Well, at least I’m trying not to think about it.”
Last fall, at the world championships, Biles, 18, won the world all-around title for the third consecutive time, a streak that was unheard-of before she came around and shredded the old record book. Her 10 gold medals at the world championships are the most for any woman; her 14 overall medals are more than any other American woman.
That makes her the favorite — the runaway favorite, actually — to win the all-around title at the Rio Games. And that, unfortunately, is both a good thing and a bad thing.
“I overthink everything,” she said. “And I have to try not to.”
Dealing with that pressure to live up to expectations could make an athlete more confident, or cause her to crumble. With the Olympics on the horizon, and getting closer by the day, how is Biles handling that mounting stress?
She has a plan that requires taking baby steps toward Rio, and trying not to worry about what’s at stake there.
Biles wrote her goals for 2016 in a leather-bound journal that Nike, her sponsor, gave her after she turned professional last summer. When we met in January, she let me leaf through the pages. There was not one mention of a gold medal anywhere.
Instead, Biles wrote that she wanted to make her second vault harder, so it could garner more points. She wrote that she wanted to be more consistent on the uneven bars.
Her final goal was to make the Olympic team.
“That’s all?” her mother, Nellie, said when she saw the list. “Just make the team?”
“Yep,” Simone replied. “I’ll update the list if I need to later.”
That made Nellie Biles happy. She knows that for Simone to remain successful, she must remain humble. That’s the way she and her husband, Ron, raised her since Simone was 3 and had to move to Texas from Columbus, Ohio, with her younger sister, Adria, because their biological mother had drug problems and could no longer care for them. Ron and Nellie, now in their 60s, with two grown children of their own, ended up adopting the girls.
Now the Biles family lives here in this Houston suburb, in a 6,000-square-foot Tuscan-style house with a six-car garage that is far different from their simpler upbringings, Ron’s in a Cleveland housing project and Nellie’s in Belize, where her family had no television or car.
“Simone is not the type of person to go around saying that she wants to win the gold medal, because that’s thinking too much of yourself and giving yourself too much credit,” Nellie Biles said. “I always tell her, ‘You never know what’s going to happen.’ If doing her best means she will come out on top, that’s awesome. If it means she’ll finish fourth, that’s awesome, too.”
There is pressure on Simone to win the gold medal, of course, but not extra pressure just because she has her own gym, Nellie Biles said. Nellie and Ron recently built and opened a 56,000-square-foot gymnastics facility called the World Champions Centre here. The center is a gymnast’s dream, with workout spaces and therapy centers and even a classroom for athletes who are home-schooled. The business can only be helped by any association with Simone Biles, regardless of how she fares this summer, but it is not essential to the plan.