Simone Biles started in foster care and is now at the Olympics

In the coming weeks, Simon Biles’s name will likely become a symbol of athletic excellence and what can be achieved when extraordinary talent is combined with extraordinary discipline and drive. But for those of us interested in children, especially kids from rough starts, Simone Biles’s name is also a symbol of what kids adopted from foster care can achieve—specifically what one child born to a drug and alcohol dependent mother can achieve when she finds stability and parental love.

Simone was born in 1997, the third of four children to Shanon Biles, who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. Her birth father was never a part of her life. Shortly after her younger sister, Adria, was born and Simone was 3, all four children were removed from their mother and sent to live with their maternal grandfather, Ron Biles, and his second wife, Nellie.

The hope was that Shanon would be able to get help and eventually be able to parent her children. The children stayed with Ron and Nellie for almost two years before going back to their mother in Ohio. Addiction is a hard illness to beat, and the children were again removed from her care because of her inability to parent. The children were placed in foster care, but this time social services was looking for a permanent adoptive family.

picture of simone biles as a child

Ron remembers getting the call from the social worker explaining that the plan for Shanon’s children had changed from reunification to adoption and asking him if he would adopt them. He also remembers the conversation with his wife Nellie, whose two sons by her first marriage were soon to be leaving for college.

Nellie loved the children, but at 47 had not planned on becoming a full time mom again to a 5 and 3 year old. (Ron’s sister was adopting the older two children.) She describes feeling “momentarily devastated, the words like a punch to the gut.” She quickly, however, said yes, and one year later Simone and Adria were officially adopted.

The family decided to go public with their story to avoid the inevitable media gossip that blindsided Gabby Douglas at the 2012 Olympics, when her estranged father tried to cash in on her fame during the Games. Ron says, “We’re open about [how Simone and Adria joined our family]. It’s not a secret. We don’t go around saying, ‘We adopted Simone because her birth mother had drug problems,’ but it isn’t something we’ve hidden.”

Simone talks with her birth mother a couple of times a year and has met her in person a few times. According to Ron, Shanon tells him she is clean and is working as a caregiver in Ohio.

“[Shanon] complains that the articles in the newspapers aren’t very complimentary to her,” Ron said. “I say, ‘They couldn’t care less about you. The only thing they care about is Simone and why she’s with us. Now you’re better, that’s fine, but the story’s not about you. It’s about Simone.’ ”

For her part, Simone is content to focus on the present.

“I wonder what my life would be like if none of this happened,” she says. “I want to know why my mother did what she did. But those aren’t questions for me because that was her lifestyle when I wasn’t even born. I have everything I need so there are no blanks left unfilled. I never felt I had questions or needed answers or had a part of me that was missing.”

simone biles with her adoptive family

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Image credit: Biles in motion (Andy Buchanan/Getty Images as published in Bleacher Report); Biles and sister as children and 2015 family picture (“Gold Rush” by Texas Monthly)