Simone Biles dominated at the 2016 Olympic games—and she’s not slowing down anytime soon.
The individual all-around, vault and floor gold medalist gave the performance of her life at Rio while the world stood in awe of her prowess. But, behind the 4-foot-9 phenom is a supportive family that resembles one of her championship routines: intricate,high-risk and in the end, a thing of beauty.
ESSENCE recently spoke with her mother, Nellie Biles, about Simone’s journey to gold, how the gymnast stays grounded and how other parents can support their child’s Olympic dreams.
Born the third out of four siblings in Columbus, Ohio, Simone and youngest sister were adopted by their grandparents Nellie and Ron (the other siblings were adopted by Ron’s sister)—who cultivated her gymnastics dreams starting at the age of six. After trying the sport as part of a day-care field trip, the instructors suggested she continue training. Simone soon enrolled in an optional training program at Bannon's Gymnastix and it was all up from there.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would be where we're at right now,” Nellie says. “When Simone started talking to me about training, I was very naïve about the sport because it was never one that I took to as a child. I just learned along the way.”
A learning curve was not only in play for Nellie, but Simone as well.
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“When she started training, the other girls around were years ahead of Simone, but she was meticulous and kept pushing on her journey moving up the ladder. To me it was slow but sure,” Nellie says. “I kept telling her, I said, ‘You know you remind me of a turtle [which is Simone’s nickname from Nellie] because you will still achieve your goal in the end, it just might take you a longer time to get there.’” And sure enough Simone did.
According to Nellie the first step in raising an Olympic athlete—or any child with a big dream is simply listening.
“What I would tell moms that have a budding athlete in whatever sport, is to listen to their child, to encourage their child and to assist their child with making some goals for themselves,” she says. “You start off with baby steps. It's great to have a dream of the Olympics one day, but then you need to start from where you're at and continue to build on whatever sport you're taking, whether it's gymnastics or any other sport. It's about building that strong foundation. There will be good times and there will be bad times and it’s your job to be there through them all.”
And her advice for keeping your child grounded once they make it big?
“Nothing should change and or be altered because of their success. In our household I try to make life as normal as possible,” Nellie says. “When we're at home we're at home I tell Simone, ‘I am your mother, I am not your fan.’ And she understands that. I do not fan girl over Simone whatsoever and none of us do. She still has chores. She still takes care of the dog. She still needs to feed the dog. She still needs to do the chores that are assigned to her."
“I’m hoping that the values that I instilled in my children including Simone, will continue. I hope she remains grounded and I hope she keeps the values that she was brought up with.”
Even with her newfound celeb-status, Simone’s bubbly personality remains, but even Nellie can’t take credit for all of Simone’s upbringing or success.
“I know throughout this journey it was not just me or my husband, myself and my husband, giving of ourselves to Simone," she says. "It was immediate family. It was extended family. It was our friends. We have quite a village to get us to the point. I think without that it would've been a little difficult for Simone to be who she is today if there was not that much support from my village.”