Simone Biles – Focus
“The funny thing was, even with ADHD, when it came to gymnastics, I could be laser-focused.”
The social worker from child protective services approached three-year-old Simone Biles and her three siblings on the front steps to their house. She said, “We’re placing you kids in foster care. It’s just for a little while, so Shanon can try to get better.” Shanon was Simone’s birth mother. She was addicted to drugs and neglected her parental responsibilities. Simone’s birth father had earlier abandoned the children and never played a role in Simone’s life. Their four children were placed in the backseat of a state-issued car and driven to their temporary foster family.
At this temporary home, Simone ate three meals a day. She had clean clothes. She took baths and she had a clean bed in which to sleep. Simone was grateful. Two months later, her Grandpa arrived to take all four children from their temporary home in Columbus, Ohio, to Houston, Texas. The two older siblings, Ashley and Tevin, were unhappy about this impending move. They missed their mother and they didn’t want to leave their hometown. Conversely, Simone couldn’t stop smiling. She and her infant sister, Adria, thrived in this environment. “I was happy,” Simone later reflected. “I knew because the knots I usually felt in my tummy were gone.” She desperately wanted a secure family home. She hoped that her Grandpa and Grandma could provide this setting.
Security took time to establish. After a brief reunion with their birth-mother, several failed drug tests and some additional time in foster care over the next couple of years, Simone and Adria were formally adopted by their grandparents. (The older siblings were adopted by another set of grandparents and stayed in Ohio.) On the day of the adoption, Simone was giddy. She hopped from one foot to the other while brushing her teeth. She knew she was in her forever home and she began calling her grandparents “Mom” and “Dad.”
One of the simple joys of this new home was a trampoline. Simone loved the feeling of flying through the air. She flipped and twisted. It was great fun. Then one day, five-year-old Simone went on a field trip with her daycare class. They were supposed to go to a farm, but it was raining. So the daycare director took them to a tumbling gym. Simone watched the older kids perform on the different gymnastics apparatus. A few minutes later, an employee from the gym asked the collective group if anyone wanted to try the gym’s foam mats. “Me!” shouted Simone. “I want to try!”
Simone was a natural. She began imitating the older girls in the room and performed several tumbling drills. Her enthusiasm, power, and broad smile caught the eye of one coach from across the room. “Look at that young girl,” Coach Ronnie said. “She’s amazing.” A few days later, Simone’s grandparents received a hand-written note in the mail from Bannon’s Gymnastix. It invited Simone to try gymnastics lessons. Her grandmother approached Simone and asked her if she would like to take a few lessons. Simone’s response speaks for itself, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Simone would meet her life-long coach, Aimee Boorman a few days into training. Reflecting on their first meeting, Boorman immediately noticed Simone’s unusual talent: “I saw this teeny petite thing with rippling muscles who was just full of energy.” Coach Aimee began to work with the young protégé and was stunned with her skills, saying, “Hmmm, six-year-olds shouldn’t be able to do that.”
Simone quickly progressed through USA Gymnastics’ levels of competition. Level 10 is the highest level in the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympic Program, but no one at her gym had ever reached level 9. At the age of 11, Simone accomplished this feat. This was astonishing because the only junior gymnasts who ever made it to level 9 were those who wanted to pursue an elite career in gymnastics. So, Simone set her sights on the Olympics and she began training 25-30 hours a week in the gym. However, if she were to be successful, these long hours of training required a tremendous amount of focus on her part.
The skill of focusing did not come naturally to Simone. She had trouble focusing on her school work, difficulty containing her energy, and she was easily distracted. A mental health professional confirmed that she had ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and gave Simone medication, which helped Simone in school. Ironically, Simone had little trouble focusing herself in the gym. “The funny thing was,” Simone explained, “even with ADHD, when it came to gymnastics, I could be laser-focused.”
In 2013, Simone earned her way onto the senior circuit and never looked back. Simone won the all-around title four consecutive years (2013-2016) at the USA Women’s Gymnastic Nationals. She also was a three-time all-around World Champion (2013-2015). In those international competitions, she won 14 medals, becoming the most decorated American gymnast of all time. Simone clearly was at the top of her game. Still, gymnastics is a cruel sport. If she had retired or become injured at that point, 99% of the world would have never known her name. The reason is simple. As a general rule, the world only pays attention to gymnastics during the Olympic Games.
This means that an elite gymnast only gets one opportunity every four years to shine. Gymnasts must put everything on hold for years, and this requires incredible day-to-day focus on one’s strategy to meet the longer-term goals. For example, Simone chose to be home-schooled so that she could devote herself to the gym. She didn’t date, attend Friday night football games, or even attend a prom. Instead, she made a list of activities that she wanted to do after the 2016 Olympic games concluded, including things that could cause her injury.
Gymnasts must also maintain a laser-like focus on the mat. One tiny misstep can mean the difference between making an Olympic team and watching them on TV. One small wobble is often the difference between winning an Olympic medal and placing a distant 10th place. Simone is the one in a million who could maintain her focus outside of the gym and on the mat. As a result, she has gone down in history as the most decorated gymnast of all time.
Simone qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Her team was dubbed the “Final Five,” which was a salute to their Olympic coach, Marta Karolyi, who was coaching the US Olympic team for the last time. Simone led the “Final Five” to a gold medal in the team competition. Two nights later, she secured the coveted gold medal in the all-around competition. On the final night of competition, she added two more gold medals for her work on the vault and floor exercise, and snagged a bronze medal on the balance beam. She is the only American gymnast to win four gold medals in one Olympic Games. Simone not only became a media darling, but she also was selected by her peers to be the flag bearer in the closing ceremonies. Simone was the first gymnast ever to receive this honor.
The story of Simone Biles is truly remarkable. She overcame so much in her short life. Her father abandoned Simone before birth and her mother couldn’t beat her addiction to crack-cocaine. Simone also had to overcome ADHD. Fortunately, she was adopted by loving grandparents who gave her a fresh shot at life. As a woman of faith, Simone firmly believes that God blessed her with a 4-foot, 8-inch frame, rippling muscles, and a propensity to tumble like no other. She found a way to focus those skills into becoming the best in the world. And she did it all with a huge smile on her face. As Simone said, “Who knew that the tiny girl with the big muscles jumping on a backyard trampoline would one day hold an American flag twice her size on a rainy night in Rio while the whole world looked on?”
Check out the Student Athlete Program
Simone Biles is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school: