Even before this year’s Olympics, Simone Biles had already catapulted onto cereal boxes on the strength of her 14 world championship medals, the most ever for an American female gymnast. But the Rio games have lifted her into something like Olympic immortality – and perhaps elevated the profile of Belize, where Ms. Biles has dual citizenship.
After Biles took home gold for the United States in the individual all-around gymnastics final on Thursday, the Belizean national board of tourism tweeted their congratulations, inviting her and the four other members of the US female gymnastics team to vacation there.
“My second home, you betta belize we’re coming,” she tweeted back.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Ms. Biles grew up in a Houston suburb, where she was adopted by her maternal grandfather and his second wife, Nellie – daughter of a prominent Belize City family – while her biological mother struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol. The gymnast regards her grandparents as her parents, and has taken up Nellie’s origins as her own.
"We’re trying to put Belize on the map as much as we can," Nellie told The New York Times. “Simone is competing for the U.S., and we’re not taking any credit away from that. But the fact that she has dual citizenship, I don’t see why we cannot celebrate her second country also."
Nellie’s mother, Evarista Cayetano, was a teacher and grocery store owner. Her father Silas began as a teacher as well, before rising through the ranks of the Belizean civil service, culminating in his election to senator in 1985, according to an obituary.
Some Belizeans are taking Simone's success as a credit to their own country. "We are taking all the gold medals she is going to win," Kim Simplis Barrow, the first lady of the tiny Central American country, joked with the Times. On Wednesday, Belize’s widest-circulating paper ran an item informing readers that "young Belizean fans, especially females, will be thrilled to learn that the star of the USA gymnastic team at the Olympics in Rio, Simone Biles, has embraced her Belizean roots," referring to an NBC interview published earlier this year.
Following her performance on Thursday, Biles told NPR that the atmosphere in the arena "was amazing … it gets you more pumped to do your routines, and more adrenaline."
"I think the pressure I put on myself was more than I took in from the media or anybody else. But I was just pressuring myself to hit sets," she said.
US team coordinator Martha Karolyi was asked on Thursday if she considered Biles the best female gymnast ever.
"I would say yes," said Ms. Karolyi, according to USA Today. "For me, the most special was my first, from [Romanian gymnast] Nadia [Comaneci] and the last, from Simone. Those really stand out for me."
"I would put Simone now on top," said Karolyi.
The team will return again to competition on Sunday, when event finals begin for the women's vault and women's uneven bars.