Simone Biles was 16 years old when she endured her first encounter with racism during the breakout performance of her extraordinary gymnastics career.
Biles, 23, looked back on that time in an exclusive interview on TODAY Thursday as the one-year countdown begins to the opening ceremony for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The Tokyo Games were to be held this year, but got postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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"I didn't really notice racism until 2013," Biles told Hoda Kotb. "I was on a world scene, and what made the news was, another gymnast saying that if we painted our skin black maybe we would all win because I had beaten her out of beam medal, and she got upset. And that (was) really the news, rather than me winning worlds."
Biles made history at the 2013 World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium, by becoming the first Black woman to win the all-around title.
In an interview afterward, Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito, who Biles beat for a bronze medal in the balance beam, said that she told a teammate, "Next time we should also paint our skin black so then we can win, too."
Biles's mother, Nellie, told USA Today at the time that the comments hurt her daughter, while her father, Ron, said they were "insulting" and "out of line."
"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."
Biles let her subsequent performances do the talking, racking up four Olympic gold medals and a record 25 career medals at the world championships to become the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history.
She spoke about what motivates her to persevere through racist incidents.
"Other than that, it happens every day, and I feel like every Black athlete or colored athlete can say that they've experienced it through their career," Biles told TODAY. "But you just have to keep going for those little ones looking up to us. It doesn't matter what you look like. You can strive for greatness, and you can be great."
Biles has also found hope in the Black Lives Matter movement pushing for change in protests across the world since the death of George Floyd in May.
“We need justice for the Black community," she said in a cover story for the August issue of Vogue. "With the peaceful protests, it’s the start of change, but it’s sad that it took all of this for people to listen. Racism and injustice have existed for years with the Black community. How many times has this happened before we had cellphones?"
The star gymnast also spoke about her ongoing recovery after being sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who abused hundreds of young female athletes and is serving life in prison.
"I feel as athletes and as survivors, everyone goes through it, so I felt the need to share that I feel the same way as you do, so if I can do it, you can do it," Biles said. "Obviously I'm going to therapy for all of those reasons, but therapy isn't bad.
"In the beginning I thought maybe I had a problem, but now I kind of look forward to therapy because it's a safe outlet for me, and I hope everyone feels comfortable and confident going to therapy and speaking out."
Biles is also continuing her preparation for the Olympics following their postponement. She told TODAY in April that she cried after hearing they were being pushed to next year, but she is now back on her game, pulling off some moves she hasn't tried in a decade.
"Training has been a little bit different," she told Hoda on Thursday. "It's been kind of crazy, but going in every day knowing and hoping that 2021 is on the horizon keeps me going. It's just, we don't know what's going to happen, so we train as if."