PITTSBURGH – The realization didn’t hit Simone Biles until days later.
Sitting in her meticulously organized bedroom in suburban Houston last winter, the teenager was idly watching the news she heard the anchor say her name.
At some point during the piece – maybe it was when the anchor said “world champion gymnast Simone Biles”– the weight of great expectations on her chiseled shoulders finally lifted.
“That’s when she lost it,” Nellie Biles said of her daughter. “She did a lot of crying. It was a relief more than anything.”
Nearly a year later, Biles’ breakthrough has turned into a springboard.
The 17-year-old with the powder keg legs and superwatt smile arrives at this weekend’s U.S. gymnastics championships a heavy favorite to defend her national title – and cement her status as a budding star ahead of the Rio Olympics.
“It’s really weird,” Biles said. “I’m just Simone to me.”
Just not the Simone she was a year ago.
Biles arrived in Chicago for the Secret Classic in July 2013 as the leader of the next wave of Americans behind the podium-hogging “Fierce Five” that soared to gold at the London Olympics.
She stumbled her way to 13th and was so exasperated afterward she promptly headed up to her hotel room, popped in the video of her mistake-riddled performance and started cackling.
“You kind of have to laugh at it,” Biles said.
The catharsis paved the way for her easy victory at nationals a month later and her coronation at the world championships in Belgium last October.
When she’s on, Biles is the closest thing to a sure thing in gymnastics these days.
After missing the American Cup in March with an injured shoulder she vanquished some demons and crushed the field in the process in the 2014 Secret Classic three weeks ago.
“Competing again makes me happy,” Biles said.
Even if it hasn’t quite made her famous.
Need proof? Her lively stream of consciousness Twitter account has just more than 15,000 followers. Reigning Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas – who is in the beginning stages of a comeback following her historic victory in London – has nearly 800,000.
While Douglas hops in a luxury car on her way to train, Biles scoots up the front seat of her Ford Focus so she can see over the dashboard.
Such is the life of a world champion in a sport where only Olympic triumph truly resonates.
Not that Biles spends too much time worrying about it. Worrying isn’t really her thing. She was too young to be in the mix for London, and even if she was old enough in 2012 she freely admits she was “awful” two years ago.
And she’s well aware that by the time the Rio Games come around in 2016 she’ll be 19, an age when the career of most female gymnasts are winding down.
She doesn’t care too much about that either.
“Age is just something you get in your head and you’re like ‘Oh, I feel old’ because you hear ‘She’s old for a gymnast, she’s 19,”’ Biles said. “I think it’s just something that plays with your head.”
And the days when Biles gets lost inside her own thoughts are long gone. She is at ease with her place as the current face of the most dominant gymnastics’ program on the planet.
Barring disaster she will try to become the first gymnast since Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina in 2001 and 2003 to repeat as world champion.
The real stakes, however, are considerably higher. In a discipline where longevity is mostly a myth, Biles finds herself facing an almost impossible task: maintaining her peak for three long years.
“It’s scary to think about,” Biles said. “But I just don’t try to think about it like that. I try to take it year by year and see what happens.”
Enter Aimee Boorman, the coach who has molded Biles from raw talent to hyperkinetic force of nature. Sure there are days when teacher and pupil clash. On those days Boorman knows it’s sometimes better to just leave well enough alone.
“The reality is sometimes I get the elite athlete and sometimes I get the 17-year-old and they’re different people,” Boorman said.
Maybe, but both Boorman and U.S. women’s team coordinator Martha Karolyi can see Biles slowly embracing her considerable potential.
“She’s becoming not just this bouncy, athletic girl but more of an accomplished gymnast who knows what it takes,” Karolyi said. “She’s somebody who realizes that not only getting to the top is important, but that staying on the top is sometimes even harder than getting up there.”
Kyla Ross, the lone member of the 2012 Olympic team actively in competition, figures to be Biles’ biggest threat to a second national title. The two are good friends – often rooming during visits to the U.S. training facility Karolyi operates near Houston – and there is no simmering rivalry.
Maybe that’s because at the moment, there is Biles and there is the rest of the world.
“She just goes out and does what she can do,” Boorman said. “She never compares herself to anyone else.”