Race remark ‘out of line,’ parent of world champ says
by Kelly Whiteside
USA TODAY Sports
Once again racist comments took hostage of a proud moment for a 16-year-old American gymnast. In this case the moment belonged to Simone Biles who became the first black woman to win a world all-around title last week.
After Biles won bronze on the balance beam at worlds in Antwerp, Belgium, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito said in a video interview, “I told (teammate Vanessa Ferrari) that next time we should also paint our skin black so then we can win, too.”
“I found it very insulting,” Biles father, Ron, told USA TODAY Sports from their home in Spring, Texas. “The racial comment was really out of line.”
Biles mother, Nellie, said she had a talk with her daughter the past two days when the family learned about the comments. “It did bother her,” Nellie said. “I told her, ‘Don’t get roped into this’ and, ‘Don’t let those comments ruin this moment for you. Just be proud of your performance and outcome.’ People are entitled to their opinion. For her to go into this racism stuff is pointless, and she’s not going to address it.”
Ron Biles added that he found the comments ironic since “normally it’s not in her favor being black, at least not in the world that I live in.” However, he said his daughter has moved on. “She’s not fazed by it,” he said.
USA Gymnastics officials said Wednesday they plan to contact the Italian federation about the incident. Ferlito apologized via Twitter on Tuesday: “I want to apologize with the Americans girls. I didn’t want to sound rude or racist. I love Simone and I’m a huge fan of USA gymnastics.” She added, “I’ve made a mistake, I’m not perfect … I didn’t think about what I was saying. I’m just a human. I’m so so sorry.”
USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny released a statement Wednesday: “The United States is proud of its athletes and the success they achieved at our recent World Championships, especially Simone. who won the all-around title and brought home four medals. USA Gymnastics is disappointed by the recent comments made by Carlotta Ferlito and apparently by the Italian Gymnastics Federation. Gymnastics is a global and inclusive sport with talented athletes, and there is no place for racial insensitivity. We are contacting the Italian federation for clarification on its comments.”
Biles flew home to Texas on Monday, and by Tuesday afternoon she said life was back to normal. “The little girls at the gym are freaking out a little bit, saying hi and giving me hugs and stuff, but that’s it,” Biles told USA TODAY Sports.
Last summer at the London Games, Gabby Douglas, at age 16, became the first black woman to win the Olympic all-around gold medal. Douglas received criticism on Twitter for her straightened hair, a racially sensitive issue in the African-American community.
“I don’t know where this is coming from,” she said then. “What’s wrong with my hair? I just simply gelled it back, put some clips in it and put it in a bun. Are you kidding me? I just made history. And you’re focusing on my hair? I just want to say, we’re all beautiful inside out. I don’t think people should be worried about that.. Nothing is going to change.”
World champion says life’s back to normal in Texas gym
At this moment, there is no better gymnast in the world than 16-year-old Simone Biles from a Texas town called Spring (really!). After winning the all-around gold at the world championships in Antwerp, Belgium, Biles arrived home late Monday night. By Tuesday afternoon, everything was back to normal.
“She’s back to being a 16-year-old,” said her father, Ronald. As he walked to his daughter’s bedroom door, music blared in the background.
After two loud knocks, the door opened.
“Whoa! Look at that room!” Ronald said, in a time-to-clean-it, young-lady voice. Then he handed the phone to his 4-foot-8 bottle rocket with braces.
What does it feel like to be a world champ now that you’re home? “It feels back to normal. Nothing changed. The little girls at the gym are freaking out a little bit, saying hi and giving me hugs and stuff, but that’s it,” Biles said. It was if she had just won a Level 3 cartwheel contest as opposed to the top honor in her first major international event.
With the Olympics three years away, is this the best moment to be the best? At the 2012 Olympics in London, Gabby Douglas won the all-around gold at 16. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Biles will be 19.
“It really is a mental game. It truly is about that. Anything can happen in three years,” said Olympic champion Nastia Liukin. “You just have to take it one year at a time.”
When Liukin was nearly 16, she finished second at the 2005 world championships, just behind fellow American Chellsie Memmel, a year older than Liukin. Memmel’s star-crossed career was sidetracked by injuries; Liukin went on to win the all-around gold at the 2008 Games.
Liukin stayed on track by following her father’s golden rule. “He said to never read any articles about myself or the competition,” she said about her father, Valeri, also her coach.
“We never spoke about the Olympics, though of course it’s in the back of your mind. Now it’s very hard not to with social media. I was competing in an era which didn’t even have Twitter. I didn’t have Instagram, so it wasn’t so instant. You had to pick up a newspaper and read about it.”
In the olden days, before Twitter, even before Facebook, the career of an elite gymnast rarely spanned two Olympics. No American female gymnast has competed in more than one Olympics since Dominique Dawes and Amy Chow at the Sydney Games in 2000.
At last week’s world championships in Antwerp, Belgium, only two members of the gold-medal winning Fierce Five team competed. Kyla Ross, who turns 17 later this month, finished second in the all-around, and McKayla Maroney, who turns 18 in December, won vault. Both are aiming for Rio. The three others have not returned to full-time training. Douglas, who turns 17 in December, recently left her coach in Iowa and moved to California with her family. Now 18, Jordyn Wieber, the 2011 world champion, is attending UCLA. Aly Raisman, 19, recently competed on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Given injuries, age, and the commitment needed to make another run, retirement is more likely than repeat. As John Geddert, Wieber’s coach, put it after the London Games, “Like it or not, this is a little girl’s sport, not a women’s sport. And the little girls are going to prevail. Their bodies get off the ground better. You don’t have to deal with curves.”
In the previous cycle following an Olympic year, Bridget Sloan won the 2009 world title and Rebecca Bross took silver. Neither made the 2012 Olympic team.
“You have to have a great mental aspect, setting those yearly goals for yourself, not ‘I want to go to Rio. I want to compete at the Olympics,” said Liukin, minutes before ducking into a sports management class at NYU, where she’s a freshman. “What are you going to do at the next world championship to stay on top and then do better at the following world championship?”
Biles was discovered, of sorts, when she was a 6-year-old, out on a daycare field trip to Bannon’s Gymnastix in Houston. She was having fun, copying older gymnasts when one of the coaches noticed her natural ability and sent a letter to her parents. Biles started recreational classes at Bannon’s and still trains there under the same coach (Aimee Boorman).
Biles stood out in the lead-up to London when she won the all-around in the juniors division at the Secret U.S. Classic. At 15, Biles was too young to qualify for the Olympic team. A year later, she became the 2013 U.S. all-around champion and entered her first world championship with confidence.
To wit: She said no one could intimidate her at the Antwerp Sports Palace because “Martha scares me more than the judges.” As in U.S. coach Martha Karolyi.
“We are hoping that these girls keep going all the way to the Olympics,” Karolyi said about Biles and Ross.
Biles lit up the Sports Palace with her floor routine on the final day, leaving with a gold medal and a floor skill named after her (the Biles).
“She’s definitely eye-catching, that’s something the international scene loves,” Liukin said. “She’s always smiling, not only with that smile and her big eyes, but with her gymnastics, her Amanar on the vault, her double layout half that got named after her on floor. It’s her skills. She makes them look so effortless.”
When asked if the 2016 Olympics in Rio has always been the goal, Biles sounded like a 16-year-old Liukin. The blinders are on. “I can’t look ahead,” she repeated. “Anything can happen.”
Maybe it’s good that Biles’ life hasn’t changed, except for a few shrieking groupies in leos. “I’m back to training, normal stuff,” she said. As for any celebration? “We might go out to eat,” Biles said.
Any place special? Any favorite dish? “I don’t care. Anywhere,” she said before turning her music back up and closing her bedroom door.
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