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Simone Biles’ Olympic career may be over but experts say her influence will transcend gymnastics

Simone Biles walked away from the Tokyo Olympics with her head unbowed and her illustrious gymnastic career cemented.

The superstar left on her terms, after stepping away during the competition to focus on her mental health.

Although she is leaving the door open for a 2024 return, if Tokyo was her curtain call, then the questions turn to what is her legacy and what does the sport’s most recognizable gymnast do for a second act?

Experts say Biles, who is tied for the Olympic record for most medals won by an American gymnast, will transcend the sport, pushing for mental health and wellness, and ushering it past the last remnants of its darkest period — the Larry Nassar scandal.

Nassar, the USA Gymnastics team’s former doctor, was accused of sexually assaulting more than 120 girls. He pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 10 minors in Michigan court in 2018 and is serving up to 175 years in prison.

Biles, who said she is a survivor of Nassar’s abuse, has spoken out in the past about how it affected her, and said that her Olympics performance was “probably” affected by it.

She now has the opportunity to continue speaking out against sexual assault and promoting any other social banners she chooses to carry.

“I would say Simone’s legacy is actually far greater reaching than medal count, and her beginning to help facilitate the change of culture in our sport,” said Bob Neat, director of communications for the National Gymnastics Association.

He said Biles, who has 32 Olympic and world medals, will represent a shift toward advocating for more safety and better treatment of athletes and coaches.

Neat predicted she’ll become more outspoken and take on a bigger stage.

In Tokyo, Biles withdrew from the team all-around, the individual all-around, the vault, floor exercise and uneven bar events after struggling early on.

She cited the mental and emotional toll of competing in the Games as reasons for backing out.

“Physically, I feel good. I’m in shape,” she told Hoda Kotb on NBC’s “TODAY” show following her exit. “Emotionally, it varies on the time and moment. Coming to the Olympics and being head star isn’t an easy feat.”

Her decision drew harsh criticism from many who said she had quit on her team, and praise from mental health supporters who backed Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history, for knowing when to take time for herself.

Biles, a Black woman dominating a majority white sport, said she felt a lot of pressure heading into the international competition.

It’s “like the weight of the world on your shoulders,” she said. It’s a “little bit too heavy to carry,” but it helps to take a step back and focus on her mental health, she said.

At the time, the Olympian said she was dealing with the “twisties,” a phenomenon that can cause potential injury when gymnasts lose their sense of space and dimension midair — even if they have performed the same maneuver for years without problems.

Derrin Moore, founder of the Atlanta-based advocacy group Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, said Biles’ legacy will forever be tied to her decision in Tokyo.

“I feel before, her legacy was going to be about her ability and skill and showing brown girls you can be who you want to be,” Moore said. “But now that she bowed out of a lot of the Olympics, I think her legacy will be around mental health. As tough as she is, and as talented as she is, she still knew when she needed to take a break. I think that’s huge for her.”

Biles wasn’t afraid to push the envelope or be the greatest gymnast, which opens the door for more Black and brown girls to follow in her footsteps, she said.

Biles’ influence on the sport will likely grow through World Champions Centre, the Houston-area training facility her parents founded, where she will most likely mold the next wave of world-class gymnasts.

“Simone was one of the first people to open up a gym and coach the kids the way she wanted to be coached. Simone was always talented, but she always wanted to do more,” said Ashley Umberger, a 2001 USA national team gymnastics member.

Biles can lean on her experience to train future Olympic gymnasts, she said.

“You understand the training and mentality because you were the athlete. And once the athlete becomes the coach, it’s like another realm,” Umberger, who owns North Stars Gymnastics in New Jersey, said. “She’s going to have the feel of going to the Olympics, she’s going to have the experience of what it’s like to be an Olympic champion and what it feels like to make a mistake and come back.”

World Champions Centre has already had big successes.

Olympic gymnast Jordan Chiles, who nearly quit the sport before starting her training there in 2018, was Biles’ last-minute replacement this year, helping Team USA win a silver medal.

“I lived in a world where everything [was] strict, strict, strict,” Chiles told NBC Sports in May. “They’ve (World Champions) given me so much encouragement. I didn’t get that too much in the past.”

Chiles then credited Biles with bringing about a culture change.

“The fact that the gym is Black-owned makes it a beacon for Black elite gymnasts,” Moore said. “That’s not by happenstance. That’s a Simone thing. It’s going to become the blueprint.”

As great of an athlete as Biles is, some believe her spotlight may dim a little in the years ahead.

“There’s always somebody new that’s going to come and maybe make new achievements,” said Tori Ford, a women’s gymnastics coach at Discover Gymnastics in Houston. “She won’t be forgotten about all the way.”

It wouldn’t be the first time a well-known Olympic gymnast has faded. Dominique Dawes and Shannon Miller, who both won gold medals as part of the 1996 “Magnificent Seven” team, were once household names who aren’t in the public eye as much anymore.

“I don’t think it’s possible to forget Simone Biles,” Umberger said.

Neat reiterated that Biles’ impact will eventually surpass her accomplishments and steering the next generation of athletes.

“Her role isn’t going to be just coaching in the gym, but leading a cultural shift of protecting the wellness of athletes and coaches. Her biggest role coming out of the Olympic Games is helping to shift the culture. That’s her legacy. She is the person to do it. She is the individual that understands it better than anybody.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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