Simone Biles is a Texan. Simone Biles is the most decorated U.S. gymnast in history, and the most decorated female gymnast ever. Simone Biles is an Olympian, and now, Simone Biles is an Olympic champion.
Simone Biles is also a black woman. Let’s talk about that.
Biles is not the first black American gymnast, not by a long shot. Before Biles, there was Wendy Hilliard, who became the first black woman — make that black person — to make a U.S. international gymnastics team in 1978. Then there was Betty Okino, a Ugandan-American who helped the U.S. win its first Olympic team medal since the 1984 Olympics (which the USSR boycotted). There was Dominique Dawes — a.k.a. “Awesome Dawesome” — who was part of three medal-winning Olympic teams and the first African-American to win an individual gymnastics medal. There’s Gabby Douglas, the first American woman to win both team and individual gold medals and the first woman to medal at a World Championships after winning Olympic gold. And now, there’s Simone Biles. Biles is the best — not for a black woman, not for a black gymnast. For anyone.
That matters, because gymnastics is one of the world’s most difficult sports. It may not be a contact sport, but it’s still a battle — a fight against gravity and the passage of time. Gravity and time always win, eventually. At 22, Olympic team member Aly Raisman is “grandma.” At 22, former Olympic all-around gold medalist Nastia Liukin retired. Mohini Bhardwaj retired at 26, just a year after making the U.S. National Team for the Athens Olympics. Women’s gymnastics has also only gotten harder — and harder, and harder still — since the 1950s and 1960s, when a cartwheel on the beam was considered high-level. That has meant more opportunities for injuries (both regular and horrific), surgeries, and the physical and psychological wear and tear that come with doing a standing Arabian twist on a four-inch-wide surface hundreds of times. To be elite in an Olympic year — to have avoided injury, and growth spurts, and the outside world that continues to exist while you spend six to seven hours a day in the gym — is an achievement in itself.
And then there’s Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, with three world championships, four national championships, and an Olympic individual and all-around title at the age of 19.
Biles is incredibly accomplished, but that doesn’t exempt her from the challenges that come with publicly existing in her body in 2016. There is still racism and sexism throughout women’s gymnastics, because there is still racism and sexism — period. But Simone Biles doesn’t talk about racist comments. Simone Biles doesn’t talk about feminism. Simone Biles talks about gymnastics, because that’s what Simone Biles does, and she does it extraordinarily well. She is the best that has ever been. And by being the best that has ever been while being a black woman, Simone Biles says a thousand words about achievement and inspiration and the insanity of racism without having to say anything at all.
Someday — maybe soon — there will be another Simone Biles. She might be even better; she might get the first perfect score under the new Code of Points. She might sweep the medal stand at the Olympics. And she might be entering a gymnastics gym for the very first time, right now. Not because of anything anyone said. Not because of anything Simone Biles said. But because Simone Biles, a black woman, is the greatest gymnast ever. And that little girl wants to be just like her.