U.S. Olympic all-around gold medalist Simone Biles has overcome many challenges on her way to becoming the world’s greatest gymnast — but the elite athlete says the memory of a 2013 incident, in which a male coach called her fat, is particularly painful.
“It was really hard, because growing up I never felt overweight or fat, so it shocked me like, ‘Why would he say that?’ ” Biles, 19, tells PEOPLE. “But in a way it actually shaped me for the better, because it just taught me to rise above and to love my body no matter what.
“Nobody could tell me what to do,” she adds.
In her new book, Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, A Life in Balance, Biles goes into detail about the traumatizing incident. At a meet three years ago, the teen wasn’t performing as well as she had hoped and subsequently overheard the coach (“His name doesn’t matter,” she says) exclaim, “You know why she crashed? Because she’s too fat — that’s why. How does she expect to compete like that?”
“It gets a little overwhelming, these memories are brought up and it makes me sad,” says Biles, who spoke about the incident Wednesday morning with Hoda Kotb on Today. “But I was born with my body for a reason and I’m using it to compete in the sport that I love.”
The athlete says these comments, especially from coaches, are nothing new for athletes. Especially gymnasts.
“It’s hard growing up in a sport where you compete with very little clothing on your body and everyone is staring at no matter how good you are,” she explains. “No matter how good you are at the sport, people will always say you don’t look good enough.”
“We’ll talk about it because we’re all going through the exact same thing,” she says. “But we’re all born with unique types of bodies, and we’ve proved that you can have any type of body and be good.”
In a recent Instagram post, Raisman, the 2016 Olympic all-around silver medalist, shut down haters with a photo showing off her impressive biceps.
“Shoutout to all the boys from 5th-9th grade who made fun of me for being ‘too strong’. Thanks for forcing me to learn to love myself and my body. My muscular arms that were considered weird and gross when I was younger have made me one of the best gymnasts on the planet. Don’t ever let anyone tell you how you should or shouldn’t look. There is no such thing as a perfect body type. I love being a part of the#PerfectNever campaign. #GirlPower#Supporteachother,” she captioned the pic.
Currently on the New York leg of her book tour, Biles hopes young women reading her book remember that “confidence is key.”
“No matter how old you are, it’s never too late to start something you love,” she says. “And do something good with it! Pursue your dreams and passions!”
And to any of her young fans who might have also experienced body-shaming?
“Don’t even listen, love your body!” says Biles. “You were born with it, God has blessed you. Don’t pay attention to negativity.”