ST. LOUIS – Simone Biles makes her way into the auxiliary gym at Chaifetz Arena and the junior boys who have finished their practice grow quiet. There are exchanged glances that speak loudly, however: That’s Simone Biles. You know… Simone. Biles.
The only thing outsized about the four-foot-nine Biles is her backpack. It dwarfs her as we walk down a hallway into the main competition floor, where reporters are awaiting her.
“Here she is,” a handler says, almost giddily. And as heads turn, Biles flashes a smile and pops herself to sit on a riser. Cameras and recorders find their way just inches from her face.
“I don’t know what I would ask myself,” Biles says a few minutes earlier, when she sits down with USA Gymnastics before meeting the rest of the media. “I always get, ‘How do you deal with the pressure?’ or ‘How is this year going to be different from the rest?’ It’s obvious questions… you know the answers because it’s an Olympic year, so why ask?”
But that’s the thing: Simone Biles has been asked everything, even before she’s made her Olympic debut. The three-time reigning U.S. and world champion is going for an unprecedented fourth consecutive P&G Gymnastics Championships title this weekend in St. Louis.
“I guess I would ask, ‘How do we do it day in and day out?’” she says, settling on her hard-hitting question. “And the answer to that is that we have this passion for the sport and we set goals for ourselves. Obviously you want to reach them, so you want to keep going.”
There are no outstated goals for Biles this weekend, as she inches closer to the Olympic Trials (July 8 and 10 in San Jose) and, subsequently, the Rio Olympics. She wants to go eight-for-eight here, hit her routines and be happy with her gymnastics.
“We are just trying to boost our confidence,” Biles says, the ‘we’ noting her partnership with coach Aimee Boorman. “We don’t worry about the scores so much, more just hitting a routine and feeling good about it. We don’t really care what that score is. Those are for the fans and audience.”
Drive down Market Street in St. Louis this week and there’s Biles, plastered on the side of a building, a 30-by-100-foot reminder that her gymnastics has made her larger than life. This year she’s done interviews for features in publications like The New Yorker, Vogue and the Wall Street Journal. Thursday morning USA TODAY called her the next Mary Lou Retton. It’s a lot for Biles to digest, but she finds the fun in the scrutiny – and expectation.
“Seeing myself in Vogue, that was pretty incredible,” Biles says having been featured in the magazine’s April issue. “I was blown away by that.”
Biles flew to New York City for a photo shoot with the magazine, set in a small warehouse with a single balance beam with photographer Norma Jean Roy.
“It was pretty simple. They didn’t ask for a lot, but it was fun to work with them,” Biles says of the beam routine she did. “They sent us the magazine when it came out. It’s one of the most famous magazines ever, so to be in it that was pretty cool.”
But is all the time, the repetitive questioning, the want and need for more – is that torture to Simone?
She giggles at such a suggestion.
“It’s not so much torture because when the articles or the magazines come out, it’s pretty awesome,” she says. “When we have a break from training, that’s when we have to do interviews. It’s like, ‘Yes! I have time off.’ And then you remember the interview part. It’s not a bad thing… It’s more like, ‘I just thought I would have the chance to lie down for a minute.’”
There are few moments to lie down, but Biles has been reminding herself to stay in the moment with it all. It’s a good challenge and reminder for her inside and out of the gym.
“I think I’ve been good about taking it moment for moment,” she says. “A lot of the interviews are forward-looking. In 2013, people were asking me about the Olympics. Now that it’s 2016, people want to know what I’m doing after the Olympics. I’m like, ‘Wait! You guys are skipping over it!’ I’m just trying to live in the moment.”
This moment – this weekend – is Biles’ attempt to win a fourth straight national title, something Sam Mikulak did a few weeks ago in Hartford on the men’s side, but has not been done on the women’s side in the modern realization of the P&G Championships.
Biles ignores the numbers, the records. She’s here to be a gymnast.
“I’m going to do what I need to do,” she says. “People keep telling me, ‘You’re going for the fourth national title in a row.’ But I’m like, ‘I’m not going for anything. You guys want me to go for the fourth, but I’m just out there to do my gymnastics.’ Everyone else is pushing goals on me, so I just focus on myself.”
And then she’s off, headed to answer question after question that she’s heard before. But it’s part of the process, and Biles loves the process. What makes her great is that ability to be in the moment, whatever it brings.