The women behind Simone Biles' groundbreaking docuseries offer a behind-the-scenes look at telling the GOAT's story
"Simone vs Herself" offered a behind-the-scenes look into Simone Biles' Tokyo Olympics journey.
The stunning Religion of Sports docuseries boasted an impressive, women-led production team.
Insider spoke to three members of the crew about earning Biles' trust and capturing her story.
How do you successfully tell the full, unadulterated, nuanced story of the world's greatest living athlete?
Time, patience, research, talent, strategy - and women.
That's the approach Emmy Award-winning sports media company Religion of Sports took with "Simone vs Herself," the seven-episode Facebook Watch docuseries that followed Simone Biles throughout her Tokyo Olympics journey. The series, which served as a stunning coming-of-age story as well as a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into life as one of the planet's biggest sports stars, relied on a majority-women team through every step of the production process.
"Having such a female-centered crew was a real benefit on this project... especially when it comes to the various components that make up Simone's story," "Simone vs Herself" Senior Producer Katie Walsh told Insider. "Obviously she's a survivor of sexual abuse. She's just gone through a lot and we can relate as women in a way that is useful and helpful to the overall project."
Having a women-led staff was more than just helpful - it was pivotal to getting "Simone vs Herself" off the ground
Early on in the project, Co-Executive Producer Giselle Parets was tasked with forging relationships with Biles, her family, her management, her coaches, and anyone else who made up the extensive and rock-solid "protection around her" in order to gain their trust and, eventually, their blessing to make the docuseries.
"Simone is very much protected by the people that really care for her," Parets told Insider. "For us to be able to embed ourselves with that inner circle, it was a process of trips and meetings and phone calls and really reading a lot about it and just, like, getting them."
"One thing that we did early on, we decided that even though Gotham [Chopra] is the director, he couldn't be too front and center," she added. "A decision was made to bring a team that [Simone's] agents and her family were really going to welcome."
A team of women, that is. As it turns out, Biles' own support system skews heavily female. Between her mother, her sister, her agent, her coach, and her teammates, Biles finds herself turning to a "strong team of women supporters" for just about everything throughout her day.
Parets' goal was to build out a production staff that seamlessly meshed with that group. Bringing Walsh, Cinematographer Jess Young, and three more accomplished women onto the eight-person team made that a reality.
"As a small documentary crew, you have to blend in and melt into the environment," Young told Insider. "[You need to] become invisible - make them forget you're there."
Spending more than 2 years on the ground with Biles helped the Religion of Sports team earn Biles' trust
"Simone vs Herself" began in 2019, at which point Walsh and Young were tasked with hitting the road to follow Biles. They went to her hometown, Houston, on numeous occasions. They traveled to competitions across the country. They even tagged along on a Biles family vacation to Belize over Thanksgiving 2019.
The project was only set to last a year or so, but when COVID-19 brought the entire world to a screeching halt, the crew was forced to change plans. Eventually, as Biles began training again, the Religion of Sports team made its way back to Houston.
Young said that Biles and the team "felt a bit more bonded" after having "endured the pandemic together." For Walsh, the extra time "really allowed me to develop a relationship with Simone where I understood her."
"I could tell when she was stressed, I could tell when she was in a good mood," Walsh said. "... It's all about creating a safe space where someone can talk... I always tried to come from a place of authenticity and honesty and the journalism will get there. But you need to understand the person you're working with and be sensitive to their needs and put them first."
They earned Biles' trust, and in turn, she offered the crew honest reflection on some of the hardest, most vulnerable parts of her life. She discussed going hungry as a young girl before going into foster care, and she described coping with suicidal thoughts after surviving sexual abuse from disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
"Having a level of sensitivity and understanding to at least be able to empathize with what she was going through on a day-to-day basis really played a role throughout the project," Walsh said. "I was very careful about when we went there, because it's triggering. Any time you discuss Nassar or anything related to that, you have to take a couple steps back in order to move forward again. And I knew that was the case for her."
"It only became more obvious as the summer continued and the Olympics happened that it's still so impactful on Simone," she added. "It's very much a part of who she is."
By the time the Olympics came around, Biles felt fully comfortable sharing her Tokyo struggles with the Religion of Sports staff
Even before Biles left for Tokyo, Walsh "could tell something... was already starting to feel pretty off" with the 24-year-old star, Parets recalled.
"What I remember is Katie [Walsh] flew back from [U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials] that weekend," she said. "We talked on the phone Monday morning or whatever, and she was like, 'Something is not right.'"
Shortly thereafter, Biles flew halfway across the world without her number one confidant - her mom, Nellie - by her side. Nellie, whom Walsh described as "the one who is always the most emotionally tapped in" to Biles, had attended every single one of her daughter's competitions until that point.
Between feeling "like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders" and not having her usual support system around to lighten the load, Biles found herself in an extremely taxing mental space during her time in Tokyo. Eventually, that stress manifested itself physically in the form of the twisties.
By then, it was only natural that Biles and her family would share it all with the "Simone vs Herself" crew. Due to the pandemic, Walsh and Young opted to stay stateside rather than traveling with Biles to the Olympics, but they shrewdly sent Biles with a camera for filming video diaries. And in an extremely poignant moment of the docuseries, a tearful Biles records herself desperately attempting to flip correctly onto her hotel bed in Tokyo during the initial onset of the twisties.
Instead of going to the games, Walsh and Young traveled to Houston to watch the Olympics with Nellie and the Biles family. The pair was there with the vast majority of the Olympic legend's support system as she left the floor during the team all-around final, and they were in the room when Biles called home in a panic to tell her mom she just "can't do it."
"For Nellie not to be able to be there, I know it was hard on Simone, I know it was hard on Nellie," Walsh said. "Then having what happened unfold and having Nellie be so far away for that, it was heartbreaking."
"Honestly, we didn't film every moment of Nellie that morning because we were trying to be so sensitive and walk the line of capturing what was happening without invading her personal space during what was really a very tragic moment for her," she added.
They captured the triumphs as well as the tribulations: the decision to protect herself rather than risk her own health to please the world around her, the moments of jubilation for her teammates, and the stunning comeback to win bronze on the beam. But the unexpected nature of Biles' run in Tokyo offered the Religion of Sports crew a unique opportunity to highlight Biles beyond her athletic prowess; instead, they showcased her humanity.
'This is life unveiling in front of your eyes through the lens of this incredible athlete'
No one was expecting Biles' time in Tokyo to turn out as it did. When Parets and Chopra were storyboarding at the project's inception, they anticipated the storybook swan song that was practically a forgone conclusion for Biles.
But even before the pandemic, the Olympics' postponement, the mental health struggles, and the twisties, Parets and Chopra knew "Simone vs Herself" would be devoted to Biles' internal struggle - they just had no idea how that would play out.
"We had a title for the series before we knew what the series was," Parets said. "Simone versus herself as the big idea, the big theme, the big thread throughout - it was there from day zero, day minus."
Rather than "Simone vs Herself" becoming the tale of an other-worldly athlete overcoming obstacles to achieve greatness, the docuseries morphed into the story of a woman who transcended greatness itself.
"She defied all greatness in my opinion," Young said. "Her story became more important when she realized she was worth more than gold medals. The awakening of putting her health first will define her legacy - in a far better way than just be remembered for winning."
To Parets, "Simone vs Herself" is the story "of a woman coming into full form."
"We're all so grateful that we witnessed in real time her transition, her growth, all the introspection she had to go through during that dark half a year, where she was pretty lost but then came out of it so strong," Parets said. "Watching the rough cuts as the team was putting them together, we were like, holy cow. This is life unveiling in front of your eyes through the lens of this incredible athlete."
"So even with all the pain and confusion and sadness and loss and everything that she experienced during that time, it's incredible," she added. "The growth in her as a woman, it's real. It is very powerful."
You can watch all seven episodes of "Simone vs Herself" for free on Facebook Watch.
Read the original article on Insider