The year of saying no


America’s most decorated gymnast is known as the GOAT, but Simon Biles wants you to know she’s human first

By KOVIE BIAKOLO | Photography by Chrisean Rose

When Simone Biles first made the decision to withdraw from certain Olympic gymnastics events this past summer, she was devastated. “I trained for five years—and then to just have to take a step back on one of the biggest stages, that only ever happens every four years, was really heartbreaking,” she says.

She resolved to withdraw from the team competition quickly, as she had only minutes to make up her mind. Her judgment was born of a desire not to cost her team a medal, and Biles also needed to take care of herself. By fully assessing whether she could compete safely in the subsequent all-around and individual events, she modeled prioritizing mental and physical health as an athlete—a topic of conversation that has the sports world riveted this year, especially where Black women are concerned. “I definitely knew any stand I took would be a little bit bigger than itself,” Biles reflects. “At the end of the day, we’re humans. We’re not just athletes. We’re not just here for entertainment.”

At the end of the day, we’re humans. We’re not just athletes. We’re not just here for entertainment.”


For Jordan Chiles, a fellow U.S. gymnast and friend, who replaced Biles on the uneven bars event at short notice, her teammate’s choice was inspirational. “She’s raised a standard in the gymnastics world,” says Chiles. “And she needs to keep raising our standard because she is a strong, intelligent woman.”

Biles later explained that she left because she had been suffering from “the twisties”—a disorienting feeling of getting lost in the air, a condition other gymnasts understood. Chiles describes it as a “pilot going onto a plane and not knowing how to fly it.” Indeed, after Biles stepped down, many gymnasts rushed to explain that “the twisties” is an experience that must be honored or the consequences could be catastrophic.

Biles was cleared by medical personnel to compete on the individual beam event, for which she won bronze. She also left the Games with a team silver—even as she faced ugly criticism for choosing to put her mental health first. But she felt empowered by fellow athletes who thanked her for her courage and by the compassion she received from many fans. “I feel content with what I did and how I made the decision,” she says.

Even before the Tokyo Olympics, Biles arguably had nothing left to prove. Regarded as the GOAT—the greatest of all time—in her sport, she became the first female athlete to be honored with her own Twitter emoji, and she even has a jewel-encrusted outline of a goat adorning her leotards. Looking ahead, Biles has yet to determine if she’ll compete at the next Olympics, but she continues to help make the sport safer for other girls. After identifying as one of the many survivors of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics, Biles testified before Congress about the FBI’s mishandling of the case. Her activism underscores a vital lesson she says she learned in Tokyo, which now informs the advice she would give others. “Take care of yourself first,” she says. “You’re more than any medal that you could ever win.”

Take care of yourself first. You’re more than any medal that you could ever win.”


Photographer, Chrisean Rose

Writer, Kovie Biakolo

Stylist, Jason Rembert

Stylist Assistant, Wilton White

Makeup Artist, Jessica Smalls at The Wall Group

Hair Stylist, Hairstylist Weezydidit, using Upgrage Boutique

Manicurist, Krystina Woods


Deputy Editor, Cori Murray

Creative Director, Nia Lawrence

Senior Editor, Brande Victorian

Senior Photo Editor & Producer, Michele Brea

Style & Beauty Editor, Blake Newby

Graphic & Motion Designer, Imani Nuñez

Social Media Director, Charisma Deberry

Video Producer, Yazmin Ramos

Videographer, Jean Paul Dia

Senior Web Developer, Victoria Sumner

Clothing Credits for Simone Biles (In Order Of Appearance):

Alexandre Vauthier, Pleated Asymmetrical Mini Dress, Price Upon Request, Select Retailers.

Danielle Frankel, Lennon Tucked Taffeta Ballgown With Draped Bodice, Price Upon Request,

Stuart Weitzman, Satin Platform Sandal,

Sterling King, Sculptural Dangling Earrings, $390,

Prada, Sequin And Fur Reversible Stole, $4800,

Prada, Wool Jacquard Gloves With Zipper Pocket Detail, $1,010,

Dion Lee, Backless Viscose-Blend Dress With Adjustable Harness-Style Leather Straps, $1,890,

For full Where to Buy shopping info, pick up the November/December 2021 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.

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