Nellie Biles always knew where to look when she wanted to find her daughter. If six-year-old Simone wasn't back-flipping off the backyard swing set, she was bouncing with her two older brothers on the trampoline. Occasionally Simone ventured to the front yard — and when she thought her parents weren't watching through their office window — climbed the four-foot mailbox, and back-tucked onto the grass below.
"Simone was a daring girl; she would do anything," Nellie says. "If her brothers told her she couldn't do something or challenged her, she would prove to them that she could."
More than a decade later, 18-year-old Simone Biles is still soaring. In August she emerged as the top U.S. gymnast again, winning the all-around national title for a third consecutive year. Just a couple months later, Biles won the all-around title at world championships to become the first woman to win three straight. Still, the 4'8" dynamo is far from finished.
Next summer Biles will travel to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where she will be the favorite to win yet another all-around title, at the 2016 Olympics. If she does, she will have achieved a childhood dream — and solidified her place as the most accomplished gymnast in U.S. history.
Around the same time Simone began flying around her Texas backyard, the youngster had an unexpected chance to show off her skills in public.
Rain had forced Simone's daycare to cancel a trip to a farm, and instead the group popped into a local gym. After watching some of the athletes for a few minutes, Simone fearlessly (and flawlessly) started to imitate the older girls she had been watching.
The coaches there noticed her ability, and the next week her gymnastics career officially began.
"At a very young age, Simone had endless energy from the time she woke up to when she would go to bed," Nellie says. "She loved life, period."
Simone acclimated quickly to the gym. For years, when she wasn't competing against her brothers, Simone and her younger sister Adria had rummaged through their dress-up chest and modeled mismatching costumes for their parents. Now, the natural entertainer had another venue where she could perform.
Initially, seven-year-old Simone trained 16 hours per week, and each year she gradually added hours to her schedule. Even as her training intensified, she maintained her upbeat attitude, focusing on all of the positives that would result from her hard work in the gym.
"At times the lifestyle was [overwhelming]," says Biles. "But I knew that's what I needed to do to get better and achieve my goals."
Right before starting high school, the driven teenager suffered a tough defeat. After competing in the 2011 Visa Championships, she learned that she had missed making the national team — by one roster spot.
She had investigated why other gymnasts had been successful, especially those who had earned a chance to compete in the Olympics. She had found that other gymnasts were being homeschooled in order to dedicate additional hours to training. Though she knew it would mean missing fun high school activities like football games, homecoming, and eventually prom, the 13-year-old approached her mom. Simone decided once again to take her training to another level.
Over the next few years, she improved and grew physically stronger. Before long, she was executing some of the toughest skills in gymnastics.
"I've been doing [some of these skills] for so long that nothing I'm working on is too hard for me," she says. "I don't think anything I do is wow. To me it's just normal."
SHE'S GOT NEXT
Biles's skill level, however, is more remarkable than normal, and she has already made quite the impression on two gymnastics legends. Former Olympic all-around champion Mary Lou Retton recently said Biles was "the most talented gymnast" she had ever seen, deeming her "unbeatable." Another former Olympian, Shannon Miller, agreed. "Simone is the one everyone is trying to catch up with," Miller says. "She takes these very intricate, demanding skills and makes them look so incredibly easy."
Biles is known for her muscular build, which enables her to generate enough force to remain in the air for long periods of time, but she isn't your typical power gymnast. Her personal coach, Aimee Boorman, says Biles's "uncanny ability" to know where she is in the air at all times is her best athletic trait. She is an all-around talent, dominating all four events (vault, balance beam, uneven bars, and floor exercise).
"Simone is able to go seamlessly from the power event, like vault or floor," says Miller, "and then stay on that four-inch wide beam and be completely steady."
Fellow U.S. gymnast Kyla Ross befriended Biles at a 2011 competition. The two have bonded during down time at meets, laughing at silly jokes and TV shows. They now refer to each other as sisters and lean on each other for support. Ross says Biles always remains true to herself. "That's what I really enjoy about her," Ross says. "She's pretty much herself the entire time; she doesn't change who she is when she goes to compete."
Miller says Biles's infectious personality may be her supreme strength. "When you watch Simone, whether you're the audience or the judge, you smile right along with her," Miller explains. "She is able to reach out and grab the audience's attention and draw them in."
LIVING THE DREAM
Nellie Biles would have her kids write down their short- and long-term goals. Young Simone always listed competitions she wanted to compete in over that season. The Olympics appeared on the list year after year.
Biles will soon be able to cross that event off her list — and, at the rate she is going, add the prestigious Olympic all-around title to her already long résumé. She will have also helped revolutionize gymnastics.
"The skills Simone is performing are mind-boggling," says Miller. "Every four years, we think this is it. You can't add another flip, you can't add another twist, and then they do. Simone is spearheading that right now."
Photos: John Cheng/USA Gymnastics and SI Premedia (timelapse), Darron Cummings/AP (floor exercise), Andrew A. Nelles/AP (uneven bars), Bob Martin for Sports Illustrated (with medal)