By Shannon Sims
Walking up the driveway, her dad waves me in from the front door with a lavender rubber glove on his hand, "Sorry! I was in the backyard!" He walks me in through the Tuscan courtyard in the middle of the house, complete with a bubbling fountain and dripping vines.
Inside, we get to meet his daughter, who only comes up to my chest but is the star of the show. She bounces down the hall as she leads us inside her bedroom, where she flips on a purple-feathered lamp and plops onto the purple bedspread. Gabbing together about music and movies, we learn about her Halloween plans -- the costume: She and three friends will be the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ... with tutus, of course.
Out come the multicolored outfits; she asks me which I like best. I choose the diamond-encrusted turquoise; she chooses the graphic pink-and-black spandex. She likes that one especially because she won a world championship in it.
"World champion is an understatement."
We are in the Houston home of Simone Biles, the American gymnast who you're sure to see on the front of a Wheaties box in two years. At age 17, she is the hottest up-and-coming star on Team USA. Already a two-time U.S. National and World All-Around champion, she has amassed a few of the early accolades that may precede a gold medal at Rio in 2016: There was her soaring floor performance at this year's national championships; there were the four gold medals she already brought home from the world championships in Nanning, China, this month; there is a flip named after her -- a signature move now called "The Biles" (the second pass in her floor routine); there was a spot on the Today show, a Sportswoman of the Year award; there is a burstingly proud father who was thrilled to talk to us about her. Gymnastics coaching scion Béla Károlyi told us, "She is a remarkable athlete, super talented ... everything you need to be a high-class gymnast. ... World champion is an understatement."
But gymnastics remains a fringe sport for the most part, until it takes center stage every four years at the Olympics. Which means we are still in the early, hazy days of Simone's success. And today, exactly one week after a stunning performance on a world stage, my photographer and I sit around casually with Simone and her father, Ron. Though it's a school night, we sit for a whole three hours -- time that, in a few years, will be worth millions.
Today, she is 17-going-on-14, in a sport where prolonging youth is crucial.
What others say about her sounds grown-up: "She has power that is pretty much unrivaled by anyone else in the world," says Philip Garcia, the head coach at the West Coast Olympic Gymnastics Academy. Biles' compact, muscular body type wasn't an obvious fit for the sport, though; judges have traditionally favored the slender elegance of gymnasts like Nadia Comaneci and Nastia Liukin. Lounging around with her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail in yoga pants and a World Champions Centre sweatshirt -- which her dad adjusted during the photo shoot to be sure the name showed -- she giggled, a teenager without the angst.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Biles moved with her family to Houston at age 3. She fell into gymnastics early on. On a day care field trip, her class visited a gym. Six-year-old Biles caught the eye of coach Aimee Boorman, who told us she noticed Biles' impeccable ability to mimic the tough stuff the older girls were doing. What she saw Biles do that day "normally requires training to do." Ten years later, Boorman is still Biles' coach.
Getting on board with a sport like gymnastics can be hard for many parents. There are injuries, there is the enormous cost of training ("probably hundreds of thousands of dollars," says Biles' dad. "I don't want to think about it."), there is the irony that, if your kid is talented enough, she will lose perhaps as much as she gains: fewer friends, less free time, even stunted growth. Biles herself hasn't had a completely smooth ride: A few years ago, during a training session, she released too late and slammed her neck on the uneven bars. Although she was fine, the mistake left her skittish on the event she'd hated from the start.
"I've never been to a party, like, ever. I don't even know what they do there."
But Biles' father, Ron, is a remarkably relaxed character -- a khaki-wearing, backyard-BBQ dad with a slight paunch. He's ex-Air Force, but since 2004 he has been his daughter's manager. He's building her a gym -- the World Champions Centre, a 61,000-foot facility that's costing millions.
Still, he's no helicopter parent: He left two adults -- the photographer and me -- alone with Simone during the interview, running off to pick up her 15-year-old little sister, Adria, from a Catholic youth group. ("My wife's real Catholic," he explained; she's a nurse and health services executive who was on a company trip when we were there.) Before leaving, he showed off the backyard pool area, where he is planning a big bash this Saturday to celebrate Simone's world championship.
When asked how involved her dad has been in her career, Biles jokingly crosses her eyes and says, "Too involved!" But she adds: "He's always wanted the best for me and has been really supportive."
And instead of going to parties, she spends her time in the gym. "I've never been to a party, like, ever," she says. "I don't even know what they do there."
Her social life revolves around her teammates, like her best friend, 18-year-old Kyla Ross, gold-medal-winner at the 2012 Olympics and one of the other Ninja Turtles. "For fun we will braid each other's hair and have a scary movie night," she says. "We don't have time for boys." (That didn't stop her from asking me, curiously, if the photographer with me was my boyfriend.)
A regular day in Biles' life means four hours homeschooling at the gym in the morning with her sister, who is also a gymnast, and her coach's daughter, and then training all afternoon, adding up to 30-plus training hours a week. Food? "I eat what I want, but I'm smart about it. Otherwise sometimes I can feel really slow." Still, a girl's gotta celebrate. Her favorite is pizza and pasta from the Olive Garden -- her celebratory stop after the China meet.
But fame is encroaching, slowly but surely. Before the Wheaties box and the inevitable corporate sponsorships and advertisements, there are a few small, silly signs. In China, while on the podium (for gold, of course), she discovered a bee in her bouquet. The video clip of her swatting away at it with a big smile went viral. She told OZY how on the plane back from the China meet, her seatmate pointed to a photo of her in the paper and tapped her, asking "You?!" The next day at the gas station, a man shouted in the store, "This girl is Simone Biles!" before hopping in his truck to drive away cheering, "Go USA!!!"
It's charming to hear her enumerate these first few moments of recognition with bright eyes and a giggle. In a few years, she won't be able to count them on one hand. By then, we realize, nothing will be quite the same. No reporters will be girlishly gabbing with her in her childhood bedroom.
Still, Rio is two years away, and challenges remain. She's got a finicky shoulder and a fragile back. Last year, a bone spur forced her to pull out of a competition. And Biles knows she needs to work on her routine on the dreaded uneven bars. "They're still scary!"
For Biles the Olympics "feel really far away still." Her next real challenge is the American Cup in March. And though Boorman says "she doesn't have Rio marked on her calendar," Biles intends to defer her enrollment at UCLA until January 2017 -- after the Olympics, when she'll finally take non-homeschool classes for the first time in nearly a decade. The time ahead is compressed; according to Boorman, most female gymnasts peak at 17 and peter out by 20. Afterward, many stick around the scene, coaching or mentoring, or else start families.
"I don't want to coach afterwards," Biles says, suggesting she'd like to be a nurse instead, like mom. "I think of how many hours I've sacrificed and how many times I've cried in the gym, and I think I would be way too easy on my students. I'd be like, 'Yeah, go home.' " Boorman says she knew she had to keep it fun, or else she'd quit. "And that would be a huge waste to gymnastics."
But for now, in her childhood bedroom, with her gold medals laid out on her purple comforter, she gushes about her favorite movies. "I love anything with Zac Efron!"
Shannon Sims is a freelance writer living in Brazil, and a recent Forest & Society Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. You can follow her @simssh.