The first thing I do when I meet Simone Biles is shake her hand. The second thing I do is apologize profusely. “No handshakes!” one of her wranglers says in a concerned voice. We’re in the era of the coronavirus, and you can never be too careful. Someone promptly brings Biles a supersized bottle of Purell hand sanitizer. Etiquette is changing — I should have just curtsied, dammit. Still, Biles shakes my hand back, laughs, and doesn’t seem to rub the disinfectant into her hands too vigorously. Biles’ reaction is chill — especially for someone who’s the most decorated gymnast in history and who has the upcoming Tokyo Olympics to train for.
“As far as corona, I feel like everybody just has to be really careful,” she tells me, when I ask if she’s worried the coronavirus will impact the 2020 Games. “Take care of yourself. Do all the precautions that they tell you to do, and then we should be good to go. Hopefully.”
But Biles and I aren’t really here to talk germs. The 22-year-old gymnast just finished speaking about being critiqued for her looks over the years.
In conversation with Katie Couric at New York’s Crosby Street Hotel in early March, Biles detailed what it was like to publicly receive criticism about everything from her hair to her body to her race. “How my calves are too big, my arms are too big, I don’t look like the average girl in today’s age, I have too many muscles,” she shared.
Wearing a red knit sweater with cursive letters that read “no competition” across the front, Biles explained that while she was striving for gold in gymnastics, being in the public eye inexplicably forced her into a different kind of competition. One that was based on appearance, that’s been fueled in part by the media and beauty industry. That’s why Biles wanted to join the skincare brand SK-II’s new campaign, which says that there should be #NoCompetition when it comes to physical appearance.
“I think no one should tell you what beauty should or shouldn’t look like,” Biles tells me. She emphasizes that this is especially important in the social media age. She’s been dealing with trolls since she was a teen. “In the beginning it was really hard because you're so young and most of the people commenting are a lot older, and they’re judging for what you look like,” she says. “It gets really hard... But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve just embraced and felt confident in my own skin and who I am today.” Over the years, she’s also learned to stay away from the comments.
But there have been real-life trolls, too, and hurdles larger than even the balance beam. For example, at the SK-II event, Biles discussed how people weren’t always just talking about what her body looked like, but also about her race.
“I remember when Gabby Douglas won, and I was like: Oh my gosh, if she can do it, I can do it — I wanted to work harder,” Biles said. “So I feel like I’ve instilled confidence in little African Americans all over the world.”
But it’s not like she got through her years of competition unscathed. She reflected on a time in 2013 when another gymnast remarked, “Next time we should also paint our skin black, so then we could win too." Biles remembers: That was really hurtful."
After the event — after Biles had kicked off her white, heeled boots — I asked about how she copes with disparaging comments like that, whether they’re coming from people she’s competing against or strangers online.
“I used to talk to my parents and some of my friends, but they’re like: It’s just random people,” she says. “They don’t know who you are, so don’t worry about it. I try not to think about it, and think back to the fact that they don’t really know who I am as a person.”
Self care is crucial (Biles says she loves hot bubble baths, face masks, and massages). Especially as she’s training for “32 to 34 hours a week” and gearing up for the Olympics — all while USA Gymnastics is proposing a $215 million settlement that would go to those who were sexually abused by disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar.
Over the weekend, Biles Tweeted: “Ugh at the airport. Heading to team camp. Still want answers from USAG and USOPC. Wish they BOTH wanted an independent investigation as much as the survivors & I do. Anxiety high.”
Ugh at the airport. Heading to team camp. Still want answers from USAG and USOPC. Wish they BOTH wanted an independent investigation as much as the survivors & I do. Anxiety high. Hard not to think about everything that I DON’T WANT TO THINK ABOUT!!!— Simone Biles (@Simone_Biles) February 29, 2020
Biles tells me she deals with this anxiety through therapy. “I feel like that’s an outlet for me, and just for me only,” she says. “People deal with it differently. I’m also on meds… I feel like therapy is a good outlet, it’s a sacred space. What you tell the therapist will not leave that room and it’s someone you can talk to about anything and not be judged. That’s the biggest thing is if you’re being judged.”
Looking ahead to Tokyo, the Olympian is focusing on herself. Not the trolls. Not beauty standards. Not the coronavirus. “I only focus on myself, so that is the beauty in the sport,” she says. “Sometimes we get pinned against some of our competitors or even our teammates and that becomes hard. But I try to just focus on myself and my training. And if I’ve done what I’m supposed to do in training then it should pay off in competition.”