Simone Biles is perhaps the greatest gymnast who has ever lived, and it’s no accident. This exclusive look inside the 19-year-old athletic virtuoso’s rigorous training regimen will give you a newfound respect for what it takes to make a champion.
Simone Biles, perhaps the most dominant female gymnast in the history of the sport and the hands-on favorite to take gold in the bulk of the events in Rio, is marching through a hypervelocity wind tunnel with eight refrigerators on her back, a training exercise designed to help her maintain focus should she ever encounter falling refrigerators or gale-force winds during competition. The 19-year-old is at the tail end of a grueling 10-hour workout at the Olympic training camp at Karolyi Ranch near Huntsville, Texas, but is showing no signs of fatigue. She bounces hydraulically about the room, effortlessly smashing the refrigerators into the costly aeroacoustic ceiling panels, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. It is an impressive display, though not as impressive as airplanes, which carry much more weight and achieve far greater heights.
“I’ve never worked with an athlete more committed and determined than this,” says her coach, Aimee Boorman, who started working with Biles 10 years ago after spotting the then 9-year-old crushing a pony’s head between her thighs at a petting zoo and sensed her potential for the sport. “When I leave the gym at the end of the day, Simone builds a makeshift coach out of a pile of hand chalk and a fedora so that she can keep training late into the night,” says Boorman. “That’s all Simone needs to stay focused.”
Not only is the three-time world champion focused, but she is also the most explosive and exhilarating athlete competitive gymnastics has ever seen. Much of her success can be attributed to her intense training regimen. For nearly a decade now, Biles has been spending upwards of 50 hours each week in the gym, relentlessly conditioning her body to jump higher, rotate faster, blink more aerodynamically, resist eating the balance beam, secrete rabbit-deterring pheromones, grow bouncier ponytails, and never sleep or urinate.
“I go to the training center as much as I can because there is a drinking fountain there,” Biles explains as she steps out of the wind tunnel with a stylish pink gym bag stuffed with a dozen refrigerators hanging off her shoulder. “There isn’t a drinking fountain at my house, so if I don’t want to be thirsty, I have to go train.”
So what, exactly, does Biles’ training program entail? A lot. She completes 18 weekly workout sessions, which are divided among six distinct training categories. To help us grasp the mind-boggling amount of work that goes into being the best in the world, Biles invited us to observe her workouts for a week as she was preparing for the biggest competition of her life: the 2016 Summer Olympics.
When Biles rockets off the vault or launches from the mat during a tumbling pass, she explodes upward with such extraordinary power and force that her muscular 4-foot-9 frame elongates to 13 feet and the skin on her face ripples back behind her ears, momentarily leaving her bare, shrieking skull fully exposed to spectators. It’s an astonishing exhibition of pure, unparalleled strength made possible through countless hours of intense physical conditioning.
Her strength and power workouts start out with a simple yet effective exercise where she ties tourniquets around the tops of her arms and legs and her neck in order to localize all of her blood in her core. This makes her torso swell into a hulking diaphanous sphere of bulging vein clusters and lean, twitching muscle that groans audibly as her rib cage warps outward. The absence of blood flow causes her extremities to temporarily die, and with her limbs rendered frail and inflexible by rigor mortis, she then runs through her routines on the parallel bars and vault—the idea being that if she can execute all of her maneuvers while partially dead, she should be able to perform them with exponentially greater intensity and dynamism when fully alive in competition.
“This is one of my favorite exercises because sometimes, if I die enough, I can see Jesus smiling at me and giving me a thumbs-up,” Biles explains. “Once he even told me that he was proud of me, and he said that when I finally die for real he would let me live with him and his family in his private luxury submarine, and I would have my very own leather couch.”
After Biles finishes with the tourniquets, her coach hucks her into a foam pit, where she grapples with a strong, hairy monster for 30 minutes to build shoulder strength. After that, she does seven push-ups. Then, finally, she stands in front of a mirror and flexes as hard as she can until her skeleton sheds her biceps and newer, slightly more toned ones grow in. It’s a thrilling and exhausting series of feats, but Biles is quick to downplay her abilities.
“Honestly, I’m not even that strong,” she says with humility. “You know what are really strong? Airplanes.”
By 2014, Biles had already established herself as the future of American gymnastics, but the colossal amount of attention and expectations that followed her was starting to affect her confidence.
“Simone would say to me, ‘I don’t do all these flips so strangers will pay attention to me—I do them because there is a Cheez-It trapped in my nasal cavity and I need to shake it out,’” says U.S.A. Gymnastics national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who Biles refers to as “Steve Guttenberg,” because she believes the 73-year-old is Steve Guttenberg. “She was obviously flustered performing on such a big stage, so I suggested she start seeing a sports psychologist,” Karolyi says. “She agreed to go as long as I would tell her what the cocoons in the movie Cocoon smelled like when they split open. So I have to keep up the charade of being Steve Guttenberg for her. It’s starting to affect my marriage.”
Upon learning that the cocoons smelled like “a sweaty garage,” Biles began visiting renowned sports psychologist Dr. Peter Terry, who has been meeting with her twice a week ever since to help her hone her mental toughness.
The sessions begin with Terry asking Biles to visualize a competitive goal, which for her almost unfailingly involve pinwheeling so rapidly on the uneven bars that she causes a rupture in space-time and opens up an interdimensional portal through which Abraham Lincoln materializes, removes his famous stovepipe hat, and bestows it upon her as a reward for her exemplary performance.
“Abraham is saying to me, ‘Thank you, Simone, for doing such cool gymnastics—they have brought me some much-needed respite from the burden of caring for my sickly and deeply insane wife,’” whispers Biles during the session we observe, her eyes squeezed shut with intense concentration.
Once she has visualized her goal, Terry asks her to imagine all of the possible distractions that could impede her from achieving success. At this point, however, Biles appears to have fallen asleep. She rises from her chair and sleepwalks over to the window, which she then opens and climbs through. She unconsciously wanders away from the building, across the freeway, and into the woods. No one sees her again for four days, when she returns to training camp well-rested and eager to resume her workouts.
First thing after lunch each day, Biles participates in a high-intensity workout that involves repeatedly hopping over two VCRs. Usually she hops over the VCRs separately, one at a time, but when the blood really starts pumping, sometimes she will stack the VCRs on top of each other and hop over both.
“We have her do about a thousand reps of this every single day,” says Boorman, her coach. “We’re not sure if it actually makes her any better at gymnastics, but it probably can’t hurt.”
Occasionally, Biles gets distracted and tries to play her favorite movie, Cocoon, in the VCRs. But, anticipating this, her training staff has filled all of the power outlets in the gym with cement so that she can’t plug the machines in and get sidetracked.
“It pisses the hell out of me that I can never watch Cocoon here,” Biles shouts as she frantically searches the wall for an outlet, realizing she’s been thwarted. “I will lose the Olympics on purpose to teach everyone here a lesson. I swear to Christ.”
As spectacular as Biles’ high-flying acrobatics might be, they mean very little on a scorecard if they’re not executed with a certain caliber of elegance and artistry. The balletic aspects of the sport have long been her Achilles heel as a competitor (in 2013, she was knocked out of first place at an international meet after performing a floor routine set to “Bang On The Drum All Day” in which she rigidly stomped on a pile of dead catfish for 45 seconds and then vomited all over the front of her leotard), which is why every Thursday for the entirety of the afternoon she diligently strives to refine her movement and style.
Helping her out with this is five-time MLB All-Star Frank Thomas, who, like Biles, possessed an astounding amount of raw power during his career, which he was able to maximize through graceful, ultra=precise mechanics in the batter’s box to become one of the most feared sluggers in baseball history.
“As far as I can tell, there is no difference between sticking a perfect two-and-a-half twist Amanar off a springboard and smacking a meaty dinger out of the yard,” says the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Thomas. “No matter how you look at it, baseball and gymnastics are exactly the same thing.”
Thomas begins the training sessions by having Biles swing a 6-foot, 20-pound piece of steel rebar in circles over her head until she is very sore. Afterward, he takes her out to a baseball field and has her hit dingers for an hour, followed by an hour of fielding ground balls. Then, they split a packet of hot dogs and drink some beers.
“Frank Thomas and Steve Guttenberg have both been integral to my world-class gymnastics career,” says Biles.
While Biles says that her sessions with Thomas have dramatically improved her fluidity on the mat, she is also planning on having her nose surgically removed before heading to Rio in hopes that it will slightly reduce drag and allow smoother, more limber motion in her routines.
Part of what makes Biles such a next-level athlete is her knack for innovating. She’s known for devising and performing aerial maneuvers that were previously unthinkable, such as her signature vault, the Benjamin Franklin Eats a Goose, in which she catapults birdlike from the apparatus and completes a fully extended double layout flip before stuffing her own feet into her mouth and rapidly swallowing herself, all while spelling out Franklin’s famous maxim “A penny saved is a penny earned” in American Sign Language. She concocts new moves like this on Mondays and Fridays during designated “Inventing Hours,” where her only objective is to figure out new ways to make her routines more exciting, more technical, and more daring.
When we stop by the gym to bear witness to one of these Inventing Hours, we find her with her body contorted into a perfect cube shape atop the balance beam, slamming herself violently against a laser printer. Nearby is a partially field-dressed deer.
“Hi, I’m just finishing warming up,” she smiles.
Remaining in the cube shape, she flops over to us and explains that she has two new moves she’s hoping to pull off today. The first is the stunt she envisioned during her visit with the sports psychologist, in which she flips around and around so rapidly on the uneven bars that she opens an interdimensional time portal and Abraham Lincoln materializes to give her his hat. The second is a variation of her usual balance-beam dismount, only instead of landing on her feet she lands perfectly on her neck, and also she is holding a picture of soup the entire time.
“Come, we will now meet Abraham,” she beckons.
At the uneven bars, she establishes a firm grip on the top bar and begins flipping—swinging herself in wild vertical loops over and over again, faster and faster, until the vibrations from the apparatus are so great that you can feel the floor of the gym rumbling.
“O, wise Abraham, Saint of Splattered Brains, we summon you now from your cage in Heaven to come witness gymnastics and feast upon a partially field-dressed deer!,” Biles screams, her voice dopplering chaotically as she accelerates faster and faster, achieving such speeds that she no longer resembles a human but rather a luminous, high-G blur.
She is now flipping alarmingly fast. The entire building is shaking precariously, and fluorescent lights explode overhead from unexplained surges of electricity, sending down dazzling showers of sparks. The air pressure in the room fluctuates wildly, and blood gushes from everyone’s noses. Another Team U.S.A. gymnast, Aly Raisman, falls off of a nearby apparatus where she is practicing and begins convulsing on the floor, her eyes swinging outside of their sockets.
Suddenly, a thunderous, 20-foot gash of white-hot light erupts from the floor, at the center of which is a swirling green portal. Biles slows to a stop and gazes toward the light expectantly, softly chanting, “Abra-ham, Abra-ham, Abra-ham,” underneath her breath. Then, from the portal comes a horrific shrieking and gurgling, followed by the sight of a mangled, swollen hand emerging forth.
“FOUR SCORM AN’ SEFFUCK YERRS AGO,” a voice cries out in agony.
It is Abraham Lincoln—or at least a heinous approximation of him. He crawls, gasping, out of the portal, naked, blistered, and deformed. His legs are little more than squirming, atrophied protrusions, like chicken feet that have been crushed beneath the wheels of a semi. His torso is a shapeless, deflated sack of skin, with the heart and other major organs hanging loose and sputtering on the outside. His eyes and nose jut grotesquely from his shoulders like some sort of mutant Kilroy drawing, with his mouth buried and howling from somewhere deep inside his flesh. Fused to his scalp is his famous stovepipe hat, partially consumed by a gruesome crown of excess skin and jagged, displaced teeth. Simone is clearly upset with herself that she was unable to perform the move up to her high standards.
“FOUR SCORM…FOUR SCORM AN’ SEFFUCK…” Abraham Lincoln squeals, writhing pitifully on the floor. “SEFFUCK! SEFFUCK! SEFFUCK!”
Calmly and with merciful precision, Biles walks over to the 16th president and snaps his neck, killing him. She carries his withered, slimy corpse over to the garbage can and stuffs him inside.
“I think that went okay, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to try it in competition yet,” Biles shrugs, her skin pulsing iridescently from exposure to trans-dimensional radiation. “Hopefully I’ll have all the wrinkles smoothed out in time for the Olympics.”
As the Inventing Hour draws to a close, we walk outside and discover that there are millions of dead birds littering the pavement surrounding the gym, their bodies arranged in a perfect geometric circle and their beaks pointing in the direction of the time portal.
The sixth and final category of Biles’ training regimen is practicing gymnastics. She does this for 15 minutes each week, typically on Wednesdays. Ideally, she would be able to practice longer, but unfortunately the other elements of her training program demand too much of her time.
A slight wobble on the beam. A stutter step on a landing. Vaulting too high and getting decapitated by a helicopter. In competitive gymnastics, even the smallest error can mean the difference between Olympic gold and devastating failure. And for Biles, who will have the entire planet watching her every move in Rio, no amount of training or God-given ability can ever fully prepare her for the immense pressure of competing on the world’s biggest stage. Yet, despite this, she remains unfazed.
“The other day, I saw a guy wearing a shirt that said, ‘LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO WORRY,’ and as silly as it sounds, that message really helped to put me at ease about things,” Biles says. “But then I saw a different guy wearing a shirt that said, ‘YOU WILL BRING SHAME TO YOUR COUNTRY AT THE OLYMPICS AND WILL PROBABLY ALSO GET DIARRHEA FROM THE WEIRD FOOD THERE,’ and I’ll admit, that one really rattled my nerves and made me start doubting myself.”
“But after that, I saw a third guy wearing a shirt that said ‘IRON MAIDEN’ and showed a banshee dismembering a demon with an electric guitar—a scenario that is not only preposterous but utterly impossible,” she continues. “It was a downright lie, and seeing that made me realize that the other T-shirts were probably lies, too, and that I shouldn’t let strangers’ shirts dictate my attitude going into the biggest competition of my life, unless the shirts have pictures of people I trust and respect on them, like Steve Guttenberg or Abraham Lincoln. After I came to this realization, it wasn’t even a minute later when a guy walked past wearing a shirt that said, ‘YOU WILL PROBABLY DO FINE,’ and had a picture of Steve Guttenberg and Abraham Lincoln holding hands on a ski lift, and it was at that moment that I knew I was destined for Olympic glory.”
Whether or not you believe prophesies from strangers’ T-shirts, you can probably have faith that Biles will deliver a performance for the ages at the Olympics and, in the process, become the most decorated American gymnast of all time. She’s simply too strong, too explosive, and too good at opening time portals to be reckoned with, and as long as she shows up and hits her marks, the rest of her competitors will merely be vying for silver.