KANSAS CITY, Mo. — This wasn’t the first time that Simone Biles criticized USA Gymnastics and its former president, Steve Penny, for its inaction against former team doctor Larry Nassar. But rarely has she been as emotional in public as she was Wednesday.
“I don’t mean to cry,” the four-time world champion and Olympic gold medalist told a group of reporters after a morning training session at Sprint Center, which hosts the U.S. gymnastics championships this week. “It’s just hard coming here for an organization and having had them fail us so many times.”
Biles’s reference was clear: the sexual abuse that she and so many other gymnasts suffered at the hands of Nassar under the guise of medical treatment and the reports that USA Gymnastics officials were aware of accusations against Nassar and took no preventive action.
“We had one job [winning Olympic gold],” Biles, 22, said, perched on a chair on the arena floor, her legs tucked under her, talking with reporters before launching a pursuit of her sixth U.S. all-around title. “And we have done everything that they asked us for — even when we didn’t want to. And they couldn’t do one damn job! You had one job; you literally had one job, and you couldn’t protect us!”
Asked about the recently completed, 18-month congressional investigation that concluded the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics “knowingly concealed” Nassar’s abuse, Biles said she felt it was important that she and other gymnasts continue to publicly voice their disappointment.
“We’re blessed to be given a [social media] platform so that people will hear,” Biles said. “But it’s not easy coming back to the sport, coming back to the organization that has failed you. ... I feel like every day is a reminder of what I went through and what I’ve been through and what I’m going through and how I’ve come out of it.”
After leading the U.S. women to team gold at the Rio Olympics and claiming individual golds in the all-around, vault and floor exercise, Biles stepped away from the sport in 2017, wrote an autobiography, appeared on “Dancing with the Stars” and, in general, transitioned to adulthood.
Shortly after returning to training, Biles disclosed via Twitter in January 2018 that she was among the hundreds of young women Nassar had assaulted and vowed the experience would not derail her dream of competing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Returning to the gym was difficult. She explained: “You feel everything at once; it hits you like a train wreck.”
Some days she couldn’t emotionally bear to complete a full day of training; she simply would walk out mid-session. Other days she couldn’t bring herself to go to the gym at all.
She credited her coaches, Laurent and Cecile Landi, for understanding her struggles. Therapy helped, she added, and her work continues.
“It’s just really sad because every time I go to the doctor or training, I get worked on [by physical therapists]; it’s like I don’t want to get worked on,” Biles said. “But my body hurts. I’m 22. At the end of the day ... I have to put in the therapy. It’s just hard. I’ll work through it. It’ll take some time. I’m strong. I’ll get through it. But it’s hard.”
The findings of the bipartisan Senate Commerce subcommittee, led by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), into the abuse of Olympic and amateur athletes were distilled last month in a 62-page report that included relevant attachments, correspondence and emails, including one from an FBI agent looking into reports of sexual abuse to Penny, thanking him for a beer and conversation about a potential job.
That detail didn’t escape Biles’s notice.
“I try just not to think about it, but it is hard once you see the FBI even was in on it and drank with Steve Penny and stuff,” Biles said with palpable recrimination. “It’s like, ‘Did you guys really not like us that much that you couldn’t just do your job?’ At the end of the day, it’s really sad for us because it becomes a problem whenever we work with future people.”
Biles, whom many believe is the greatest gymnast in the sport’s history, will never have to see Nassar again. The former team physician is serving an effective life sentence for child pornography and sexually abusing girls and young women.
But the moment she steps onto the Sprint Center floor when the women’s events get underway Friday — wearing a leotard with her last name and the image of a goat (Greatest of All Time) stitched in sequins on the back — she will be representing not only herself but also USA Gymnastics, the organization she feels failed her.
USA Gymnastics’ logo is prominent on banners that encircle the competition floor — as difficult to ignore as the absence of signage of corporate sponsors that defected in the wake of the Nassar scandal.
USA Gymnastics is counting on Biles, the country’s most decorated gymnast, to woo back those corporate sponsors. The lone member of the 2016 Olympic gold medal winning team to return for this year’s nationals, she no doubt will attract the majority of the fans and TV viewers who are essential to returning USA Gymnastics to solvency.
Asked whether she had confidence in USAG, which is on its third CEO since Penny was forced to resign in 2017, Biles asked, “How can we trust them?
“The people I had known for years had failed us,” she said. “... Everyone they bring in, you kind of put a wall up. ... At this point, all we can do is have faith that they’ll have our back and do the right thing. But at the end of the day, it’s just a ticking time bomb. We’ll see.”
Li Li Leung, USAG’s president and CEO, said in response to Biles’s comments that the organization had made progress in strengthening measures to keep athletes safe but realized “we have more to do.”