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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Simone Biles hears it all, from fans and trolls, then listens to herself

Simon Biles on the uneven bars at the United States Women’s Olympic Gymnastics trials finals at the Target Center in Minneapolis on Sunday.  (Pioneer Press)
By Candace Buckner Washington Post

MINNEAPOLIS – Wherever Simone Biles goes, mania follows. It’s a fitting welcome for the nation’s best gymnast, who is also one of the most dominant athletes in the world.

Yet wherever she appears, cynicism lurks. It’s a peculiar reaction Biles notices and realizes no number of gold medals will change. Biles’ withdrawal from the all-around competition at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, when she experienced a sensation with a silly name (but one that presents dangerous consequences), produced a wellspring of empathy and support. However, Biles’s decision to prioritize her mental health also gave license for some to call her a quitter.

High-level athletes love to fuel up on negativity. Even the best go searching for an anonymous “they” – anyone who dares express an opinion other than adoration – for inspiration. Just listen to an athlete fresh off a triumph and in the throes of adrenaline give an audience to his or her haters. They doubted me! Biles, too, discovers online trolls here and there, nesting in the comments sections just to rehash what happened in 2021. But during her gymnastics comeback, with her skills as astonishing and jaw-dropping as ever, Biles has given up on trying to disprove her doubters.

Late Sunday night, after Biles earned an Olympic berth by crushing the all-around competition at the U.S. women’s trials, she considered the quadrennial observers of gymnastics. The ones who last thought about vaults and bars during her nightmare in Tokyo. Biles knows they’re out there, and they have opinions. Yet, she knows she can’t win back everyone.

“It doesn’t even matter if I do it. They’ll still say: ‘Oh my gosh, are you going to quit again?’ ” Biles said. “And if I did, what are you going to do about it? Tweet me some more? Like, I’ve already dealt with it for three years.”

To witness the contrast between the boisterous followers of gymnastics who worship her and the small yet bombastic community that reviles what she did, you only need to spend a few minutes in a sold-out arena. The screams are deafening. When Biles appears, girls in the crowd, and even their parents, lose themselves. They know the sport and observe every moment with a proctor’s eye for detail. During the first day of the women’s trials, Biles looked shaky on the beam, and the crowd gasped, thinking the G.O.A.T. would fall. When she dismounted, needing to take a step back to catch herself, Biles rolled her eyes and mouthed a naughty word. The crowd reacted with a pearl-clutching reaction: “Oooo!

The second night, Biles commanded her floor routine, the crowd hanging on every tumbling pass, every atmosphere-defying leap that propelled this 4-foot-8 human 12 feet into the air. Teammate Jordan Chiles watched wide-eyed from the floor, cheering her on. Biles’s fans couldn’t get as close as Chiles, but when she finished – placing her right hand up to her face in a playful way – like Oh! Look what I just did! – they jumped to their feet in appreciation. Even some of the judges were smiling. Later, the biggest pop star in the world replied to a post that replayed Biles’s performance, expressing her awe with six emoji. Taylor Swift’s message garnered 2 million views and counting.

Their love is loud and unrestrained. Biles hears it all.

“Oh my goodness! Thank you guys so much, I wouldn’t be here without all of you,” Biles said late Sunday night, when asked to give a message to the fans who packed Target Center. “Each and every comment that I see or tweet, or parents’ Instagrams that are like, ‘Oh my gosh, my daughter’s wearing your (leotard), she’s so excited!’ … It’s just really exciting. It warms my heart and I see most of it but it just keeps me running.”

And yet, resentment persists. Biles posted a series of photos on Instagram ahead of the trials, each one showing glimpses of her effervescent personality. In the avalanche of adoration and approvals of yassss queen!, one rogue comment called her a “Quitter.” Last month, in the comments on a Washington Post story that focused on Biles returning with more challenging routines after Tokyo, one user accused her of “whining.” Another expressed the sarcastic hope she “does not choke this time.”

Their criticism might represent just a speck next to the fawning majority, but Biles hears this, too.

Her fans rush to her defense, overwhelming the noise with even more applause. They call out the uncomfortable truth that the greatest gymnast this country has ever produced is a Black woman, powerful and unapologetic in her dominance, and the naysayers who were quick to pounce on her moment of vulnerability appeared to be largely conservative, white and male.

“They want to see us fail,” Biles said, not referring to anyone specifically. Only the anonymous “they.”

“They want to see the rise to success, and as soon as you get it, and you take that and run with it and you start reigning for a really long time, they want to see the downfall, which is really unfortunate,” Biles continued. “Because sports hasn’t seen athletes like we’ve seen before, so you really have to give them their flowers in the sport, because once they’re gone, you’re going to miss them.”

Biles isn’t trying to prove her critics wrong. Her reasons for competing aren’t solely to satisfy her fans, either.

“I feel like my ‘why’ is nobody’s forcing me to do it,” Biles said. “I wake up every day and choose to grind in the gym and come out here and perform, for myself, just to remind myself that I can still do it.”

Biles hears the love as well as the hate. But it’s her inner voice that screams the loudest motivation.