Simone Biles taps into Olympics, mental health in new tour – Los Angeles Times

Simone Biles’ schedule last week began with enviable glamour. She wore a swanky gown to the Video Music Awards, attended the Met Gala in a bedazzled outfit that weighed almost as much as she does and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2021. In an accompanying essay, Serena Williams called Biles, “A shining example of what success looks like when you let go of what the world thinks and gather your strength from yourself … from your soul.”

Her week also took a somber turn. Holding back tears, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last Wednesday and bluntly called out the organizations and people who couldn’t be bothered to protect gymnasts from the sexual abuse of former national team doctor Larry Nassar, as well as those whose botched investigations gave Nassar time to harm more women. “We have been failed, and we deserve answers,” she said.

Keeping all parts of her life in balance is infinitely more difficult than the routines she performed to win seven Olympic and 25 world championship medals, feats that earned her the nickname G.O.A.T (greatest of all time). Asked how she maintains her equilibrium, she smiled.

“That’s a good question,” she said during a Zoom interview. “I think it’s just really taking everything one day at a time, and that has helped me stay the most sane.”

Her representative said Biles wouldn’t discuss her congressional testimony because she wants to move forward, but the trauma is never far from her mind. For Biles, moving forward includes being the headliner of the impressive cast of the 35-city Gold Over America Tour, which will visit Honda Center in Anaheim on Friday and Staples Center on Saturday.

The show was designed to be an ensemble of gymnastics and dance performances and a rekindling of the spirit. Unlike the Biles-led tour that followed the 2016 Olympics, it’s not produced by USA Gymnastics. She has a chilly relationship with the organization, and during her testimony in Congress she cited USA Gymnastics, the slow-moving and inattentive FBI, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee for further victimizing Nassar’s victims. Not being tied to USA Gymnastics allowed Biles to put her stamp on the show, whose supervising choreographer is former UCLA gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field.

Simone Biles attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala on Sept. 13.

Simone Biles attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute benefit gala on Sept. 13.

(Evan Agostini / Invision / Associated Press)

“There’s a lot of entertainment, but I think we want to put some realness, some authenticity into it, some rawness, to know that we’re still human and we’re here to help everybody out there,” Biles said. “But also for everybody in the audience to walk away feeling like they have a piece of gold in them. I think that’s really unique.”

Feeling empowered is a key point. “Also, what some people may go through on a daily basis,” Biles said. “We have one segment called ‘Overwhelmed.’ And it’s kind of like that anxiety, depression feel to it and it’s like trying to fight those battles and coming out stronger from it and then being happy again, so you’ll see that a little bit in the show.”

That segment, Biles said, will feature a spoken word performance by former UCLA standout Katelyn Ohashi, whose exuberant floor exercise routines went viral during her Bruins career. Ohashi defeated Biles at the prestigious American Cup competition in 2013 when both were 15 years old but injuries and the intense pressures of elite gymnastics took Ohashi off the Olympic track.

Biles was expected to dominate the Tokyo Olympics but shockingly withdrew from the team competition after performing a wobbly vault in the first rotation. She was unnerved by “the twisties” — a loss of spatial orientation that made her uncertain of where she was in the air and left her vulnerable to injury —and felt overwhelmed by pressure. While she tended to her mental health, Jordan Chiles, Grace McCallum and Sunisa Lee stepped up to earn a team silver medal. Biles withdrew from three event finals but returned to earn a bronze medal on the balance beam.

Simone Biles performs on the balance beam at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo.

Simone Biles performs on the balance beam at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre during the Tokyo Olympic Games on Aug. 3.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“To know that we can come out on top of this and we’re going to be OK, but also with this storyline it’s OK not to be OK, and it’s OK to speak up and it’s OK to ask for help.”

Simone Biles

She has recovered from the twisties but plans to perform double flips in place of twists in deference to the heavy demands of the tour, which runs through Nov. 7. The segment about the anxiety she felt in Tokyo has been an emotional release and allows her to pass on a positive lesson.

“I feel like the piece is so beautiful,” she said, “so every time I start, I get a little emotional because it’s something that I did go through but I know that a lot of athletes and fans in the audience have gone through similar situations. To know that we can come out on top of this and we’re going to be OK, but also with this storyline it’s OK not to be OK, and it’s OK to speak up and it’s OK to ask for help.”

The cast also features Tokyo Olympic medalists Jade Carey and MyKayla Skinner, plus past Olympic and U.S. national team members Laurie Hernandez, Chellsie Memmel, Morgan Hurd, Nia Dennis (a UCLA alumna ) and Shilese Jones. French Olympian Melanie de Jesus dos Santos and Canada’s Ellie Black also are scheduled to perform.

Chiles, who trains with Biles in the Biles family’s Houston gym, deferred her enrollment at UCLA until December, in part, so she can tour with Biles.

“It’s been fun. Not only does she inspire a lot of people, let alone me, it’s been really amazing just to see what she’s done outside the gymnastics world,” Chiles said. “She’s been constantly going, going and going, and that’s very inspirational because no matter what, she’s still working hard and she’s done a lot of things.”

Simone Biles and Jordan Chiles watch the women's individual all-around final.

Simone Biles, right, and Jordan Chiles watch the women’s individual all-around final at the Tokyo Olympics on July 29.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Biles isn’t sure what she will do after the tour concludes and she takes time off. She has mentioned pursuing an event-specialist spot on the 2024 Paris Olympic team, but the year’s postponement of the Tokyo Games to 2021 took a heavier toll on her body and her mind than she expected.

“Still sorting out,” she said. “I feel like from the Olympics to now, it’s kind of been a whirlwind and there’s really no time to think about anything but to stay in shape and get ready for tour, and afterwards decompress and kind of see where life takes me, whether that’s in the gym or out of the gym.”

She still has her ups and downs, “as anyone does,” she said, and she’s still working through her Tokyo experiences. Along the way, she has found the welcome peace of believing what occurred at the Games happened for a reason, and that she has a new purpose. “Now I’m able to help a lot of people globally going through mental health issues,” she said, “so if I can be a voice for that and speak up for that, then that’s what I’m going to do.”