Women's Empowerment

Simone Biles’s Impact Is Greater Than Any Single Performance—She’s Changing the Face of Gymnastics

Tamara Pridgett

Photo: Getty/ Ezra Shaw | Graphic: W+G Creative
By now, you've read countless times that gymnast Simone Biles is the sport's greatest of all time—the GOAT. She's performed at a level that no one else before her has. In fact, four gymnastic skills are named after her and she has 24 world championship medals (19 of them gold) and five Olympic medals to her name. But her impact goes beyond the record books—she's transforming gymnastics for future generations.

On July 27, Biles surprised the world by withdrawing from the women's gymnastics team competition finals during the Tokyo Games, and a day later she made the decision to withdraw from the individual all-around competition as well. In part, the legacy that will follow Biles's decision to step back from these events starts with the fact that she decided to participate in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to begin with. In 2018, Biles wrote in an Instagram post that she was one of the survivors of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, the former doctor for U.S.A. Gymnastics who was convicted for his crimes, and she has cited this as a core reason for returning to gymnastics' biggest stage.

"I just feel like everything that happened [with the sex abuse scandal], I had to come back to the sport to be a voice, to have change happen because I feel like if there weren't a remaining survivor in the sport, they would've just brushed it to the sides," she said in an interview on Today with Hoda Kotb. "I knew I had more to give to the sport for myself, and I felt like I had a purpose and now I feel like I do and it's to be a voice for the younger generation."

She's doing this in two key ways. First, as a mentor to younger teammates. There are countless examples of Biles leading with compassion and support, from her fixing her 15 year-old teammate Zoe Miller's hair to her staying to cheer her teammates on in the Olympic finals after she withdrew from the event. However, one example in particular that shows true leadership is her relationship with fellow Team U.S.A. member Jordan Chiles. Chiles quickly ascended to become one of the best gymnasts for the US, placing second in the all-around competition at the 2017 US National Championships, and third at a World Cup event a year later, but she didn't perform as well that same summer in competitions. In an interview with ESPN, she shared how she felt like "a nobody," questioning why she even participated in the sport to begin with.

Biles stepped in and encouraged her to stick it out, inviting Chiles to train alongside her at her home gym in Texas. The advice and support from Biles and the sisterhood that they developed played a large part in Chiles's happiness in the sport—not to mention the fact that she made the 2020 Olympic team. Of her relationship with her younger teammates, Biles said in an interview with NBC Sports at the 2021 US Championships, "It's meant the world, especially having the younger ones to kind of guide through the way. I've been here for so long, so to be a mentor has meant everything to me."

Seeing Biles in action is inspiring for young athletes, especially young Black girls. Representation is important, particularly in a sport that isn’t accessible to all because of barriers such as finances. If someone has gotten over that hurdle (and others that exist), they can sometimes be faced with the daily reminder that, when you look around, you don't see many others who look like you.

By pushing the limits and executing skills no one has ever done before—even when she isn’t fairly rewarded for these feats—by displaying confidence (prime example: her goat leotard), by using her voice and platform, she’s changing the landscape of sport, and she’s showing everyone that you can play by your own terms, maintain your values, and still be successful.

On Tuesday, after withdrawing from the gymnastics team final, she made a clear statement to her young teammates that being a mentor and leader means first and foremost trusting those around you. “Today it’s like, you know what, no, I don’t want to do something stupid and get hurt,” she told the New York Times. “And it’s just not worth it, especially when you have three amazing athletes that can step up to the plate and do it."

Next, and more broadly perhaps, Biles is setting an example for how to navigate in a world filled with constant pressure to succeed. Following the team qualifying round on July 25, Biles posted to Instagram, "I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard." It was a harbinger of things to come: She would later confirm that her reason for leaving the team competition was her mental health.

To pull out of the team competition and put her mental and emotional well-being first displays strength. To step back and acknowledge that she isn't okay and that her well-being is the most important thing—not a gold medal, not sponsorships—is powerful. She's aware of the influence that comes with the job and she's using it to elicit long-term change in sport and beyond.

Like fellow athletes such as Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, and Kevin Love, Biles speaking openly about her mental health gives real agency to the idea that we can win in ways that don't require a gold medal. What's more, in pulling out of the competition, Biles also sets forth a new template for what women's sport can be if, instead of putting the weight of the world on the shoulders of some, we create a world where healthy competition exists for all. That's where her legacy lives on forever.

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