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‘Don’t try this at home,’ Simone Biles has everyone scrambling for a revision

Biles is now the most decorated gymnast of all time with 25 medals

There is no better indication that you are one of the greatest athletes of all time than a sport’s governing body discouraging current and future athletes from attempting a skill that holds up the banner of your name. Gone is the broadcast warning, “Don’t try this at home.” Simone Biles has everyone scrambling for a revision: “Don’t even try this if you are an elite professional.”

When I first caught wind of Biles, the young gymnastics fanatic in me — who had watched Dominique Dawes, the first black gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal, in 1996 — somersaulted in excitement.

By Thursday, after winning a fifth all-around title, Biles had a medal for each year of her life: 22. On Saturday, she vaulted to tie the record with Vitaly Scherbo for 23 medals. And Sunday, before she’d even performed her floor routine, she took gold on beam, making her the most decorated gymnast of all time with 24 medals.

Ahead of worlds, the International Gymnastics Federation’s (FIG) rated her two latest skills, which only she has performed in competition. In FIG’s code of points system, skills are ranked from A (the easiest) to J (the most difficult). The latest sensation, the “Biles II,” her triple-double tumbling pass on floor, was assigned, the highest-rated “J,” while her double-double dismount off the balance beam was given a mere “H” (I say “mere” with incredulity). The official statement from FIG was that they chose to rate the beam discount low to deter future gymnasts from performing it, because of the “added risk of potentially landing on the neck.”

Under this scoring system, her margins of victory are unreachable by her peers because of the intrepid nature of her routines. She already had two namesakes down in the book, the “Biles” on vault and the original “Biles” on floor, rated at a “G.” Commentators utter the phrase “the only one in competition” about the skills that she executes, so much so that it becomes literal. The athlete in me wonders, where did she come from?

This isn’t a question of location or geography, or the implication of inhumanness that all too frequently exists in commentary on black athletes. What I mean is, what has shaped her into the unprecedented athlete that she is: fast and powerful in her tumbling, yet controlled? Outspoken and competitive, but also America’s sweetheart, giggling through injuries and potential media traps.

Biles is excellent at remaining balanced not only on the beam but also in her public life. On her FIG profile, her chosen motto attests, poetically, to her ability to toe the 4-inch beam between necessary arrogance and prescribed humility: “Let your faith be bigger than your fears.”

Those of us who participated in competitive sports from a young age know that a certain incipient mental toughness is required to excel as an athlete, to push yourself beyond the average feats and attitudes, the neural pathways that can routinely walk us down a dead end. We get the privilege of gaining a preemptive strategy for hardship.

Then again, for some, it happens in the opposite direction: Early hardship is what lends to the mental fortitude that serves us in training and in life to make a great athlete.

For Biles, that toughness showed up when she was a child. Unlike the traditional bildungsroman, there are certain children who don’t get the privilege of growing up naïve. Before she could make adult sense of the hardships in her life, she had to trust herself. She knew to escape to the nearest sky that she could tumble and sail toward. She knew how to catch a wind.

“Most people might think that at age three I was too young to know what it meant to be placed in foster care, but the truth is I understood everything,” she writes in her autobiography Courage to Soar.One memory I do recall is Tevin [my brother] pushing Ashley [my sister] and me on a swing in our foster family’s backyard. I used to imitate my brother by swinging high and doing backflips off that play set, soaring through the air. ‘Simone, you can fly! You can fly!’ Tevin would yell, running to where I’d landed in a tumble on the grass.”

“Sometimes I wonder how I do it,” she said after claiming her fifth title on Thursday, in awe of herself.

In knowing her story, it’s clear that what drives Biles is her courage to fly beyond the dead ends, her will to ascend even after she meets the ground over and over again. She is the most decorated gymnast of all time because of her faith in herself, and how often that faith has triumphed over fear.

Joy Priest is the author of HORSEPOWER (Pitt Poetry Series, Sept. 2020), winner of the Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. She is the recipient of the 2020 Stanley Kunitz Prize, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in APR, The Atlantic, Poets & Writers, Poetry Northwest, and Best New Poets, among others. Currently, she is a doctoral student in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Houston.