Gymnastics superstar Simone Biles has added yet another accomplishment to her already-lengthy list of achievements: landing the cover of Vogue.
The 23-year-old five-time Olympic medalist and five-time world champion posed for a stunning shoot with acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz for the publication’s August issue – in which she opened up about her ongoing struggle to deal with the Larry Nassar abuse scandal, as well as the discrimination she has faced in the sport.
Simone’s cover shoot and candid interview come amid mounting criticism of Vogue’s lack of diversity – which has seen Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour apologize for ‘hurtful and intolerant’ behavior while facing calls to resign.
Taking center stage: Gymnast Simone Biles posed for a stunning cover shoot for the August issue of Vogue, in which she opens up about racism and the Larry Nassar abuse scandal
Changing times: The 23-year-old’s shoot comes amid mounting criticism over Vogue’s lack of diversity – which saw Anna Wintour admit to ‘hurtful and intolerant’ behavior
Speaking to the publication in a series of conversations between early March and early June, Simone discussed the serious ‘need for change’ in society, while detailing how she dealt with seeing so few black gymnasts competing in the sport as she was growing up.
‘Growing up, I didn’t see very many Black gymnasts, so whenever I did, I felt really inspired to go out there and want to be as good as them,’ she explained.
‘I remember watching Gabby Douglas win the 2012 Olympics, and I was like, If she can do it, I can do it.’
The second half of her interview with Vogue took place while the Black Lives Matter protests started sweeping country in the wake of the death of unarmed black man George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer and his colleagues.
And while Simone says she is encouraged by the action that is being taken, she is clear that this is something that should have happened a long time ago.
‘We need change. We need justice for the Black community,’ she said.
‘With the peaceful protests it’s the start of change, but it’s sad that it took all of this for people to listen. Racism and injustice have existed for years with the Black community. How many times has this happened before we had cell phones?’
Taking a stand: Speaking about her decision to come forward as a victim of pedophile doctor Nassar, Simone said that she wanted other survivors ‘to feel comfortable in coming forward’
Fear: Simone admitted that she thought about quitting training for the Olympics when they were postponed because she didn’t want to deal with USA Gymnastics for another year
The gymnast, who is from Columbus, Ohio, also spoke out about the criticism of the more violent protests, insisting that people refused to pay attention when people tried to peacefully protest – pointing to NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who she notes ‘lost his career’ after kneeling at games in protest against racial injustice in the US.
‘They took his whole entire career away from that poor man,’ she said. ‘And look at us now. It’s working. You just have to be the first and people will follow.’
In the years since competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio – where she won the all-around competition, as well as individual golds in the vault and floor exercise, a bronze on beam, and a team gold – Simone has become much more outspoken about serious issues.
Sentenced: Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in jail in 2018 at a trial that saw dozens of gymnasts sharing powerful victim-impact statements in front of the court
As well as using her platform to raise awareness about Black Lives Matter, and the ongoing fight for racial equality in the US, Simone has also become one of the leading critics of USA Gymnastics’ handling of the Nassar abuse scandal, having come forward as one of the pedophile doctor’s many victims in January 2018 – just over one year after he was arrested on child pornography charges.
Looking back on her decision to speak out when she did, Simone admits that she spent a lot of time privately struggling with the abuse that she faced – revealing that she refused to address the subject with her family.
‘Whenever my parents would ask me about it, or my brothers, I would just shut it down,’ she recalled. ‘Like, “No! It didn’t happen!” I would get really angry.’
Her mother Nellie, who is actually Simone’s biological grandmother but has been her legal parent since adopting the gymnast in 2003, told Vogue that the ferocious and emotional reaction ‘was awful’, explaining that Simone would ‘scream and walk out the door’ whenever they tried to broach the subject with her.
‘Of course [her strong reaction worried me],’ Nellie said, adding that Simone’s refusal to discuss the Nassar accusations, which began in 2016, made her all the more fearful that her daughter had been a subject to his abuse.
Moving forward: Simone, pictured in Rio in 2016, is currently training for the Olympics next year – however she admits that she struggled with the impact of quarantine on her routine
Even after Simone moved out of her parents’ home and into her own condo, she struggled to cope with processing the abuse she had faced – admitting that she ‘was very depressed’ and could do little more than sleep day in, day out because it was ‘the closest thing to death without harming myself’.
In the end, Simone says that it was her close friend and fellow survivor Maggie Nichols who inspired her to open up about Nassar, after she spent years believing that what she had experienced wasn’t actually abuse because it wasn’t as ‘bad’ as what some of his other victims had described.
‘But I was reading Maggie’s coverage and it just hit me,’ she said. ‘I was like, I’ve had the same treatments. I remember Googling, like, “sexually abused”.
Inspiration: Simone said it was her friend and fellow survivor Maggie Nichols who inspired her to come forward with her own story
‘Because I know some girls had it worse than me. I know that for a fact. So I felt like I wasn’t abused, because it wasn’t to the same extent as the other girls. Some of my friends had it really, really bad. They were his favorite. Since mine wasn’t to that capacity, I felt like it didn’t happen.’
She added that she actually felt guilty about how the abuse might make people feel about her – explaining that she was concerned about somehow tarnishing the image of America’s sweetheart that she had taken on since winning the Olympics in 2016.
‘…I felt… like I was letting other people down by this,’ Simone confessed.
However, the sporting superstar hoped that in sharing her own experiences, she might help other survivors to feel ‘comfortable and safe in coming forward’, so she made the decision to share her story.
In a heart-wrenching statement released on social media, Simone described herself as being ‘broken’ by the abuse that she suffered at the hands of Nassar, while also admitting that the idea of returning to the training center where those assaults had taken place was ‘heartbreaking’.
In the days after she spoke out, dozens of gymnasts came forward to share powerful victim-impact statements about their own experiences with Nassar in a trial that saw him sentenced to 175 years in jail.