By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Staff

Zola Grey, 17, has spent much of her life in a gymnastics studio. Despite recently shifting gears to focus on another sport, she looks back at that time with fondness. (OBSERVER photo by Louis Bryant III)

ELK GROVE – Girls around the globe adorn the walls of their bedrooms with photos of celebrities they see in movies and music videos and dream of meeting and emulating. 

Seventeen-year-old Zola Grey has a framed picture from the time she met gymnastics star Simone Biles.

The Elk Grove teen met her idol back in October 2017 when she came to Sacramento to speak at a women’s luncheon hosted by the United Way. Biles had won five medals, including four gold, at the Summer Olympics in Rio the year before.Meeting her, even if only for a brief photo opp, was a big deal for Grey, then 14.

“When I went to go meet Simone Biles, it was actually during school, so I got to leave school early for it,” Grey recalls.

“I didn’t really talk to her much, we just kind of took a photo, but she was really nice from what I could tell.”

Zola Grey, right, met Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles when she appeared at a women’s luncheon at the Memorial Auditorium in October 2017. While both are petite athletes, Grey towered over Biles, at just 14 years old.

Grey continued to follow Biles’ gymnastics career and her rise to being considered “The G.O.A.T.,” or Greatest Of All Time, in the sport.

Biles, 24, sparked international conversation, and criticism, earlier this month with the decision not to compete in the team all-around competition at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. She’d been expected to lift the team to certain gold. “I honestly think her decision was the right decision,” Grey said. “Gymnastics is a hard, hard sport and if you’re not in the right mental state, it’s gonna be tough. You can really hurt yourself if you’re not in the right headspace. If you’re not focused, there’s so many things that could go wrong. For her to recognize that her mental health isn’t right. It’s just amazing.” 

A serious back and hip injury forced Grey to leave gymnastics last year, a sport she’d participated in since she was barely out of the womb. “I started when I was one,” she said. “I was a premature baby, so my mom just wanted me to get around and move.”

Grey excelled on the uneven bars and travelled the country competing. Her younger sister, Jada, once competed as well, but gave it up several years ago. They were often the only Black girls at the studio. They practiced for four and a half hours every day, six days a week during the school year and five hours a day during the summer. 

Grey says she witnessed racist comments from a coach there, but persevered with the help of two Black male coaches who helped her progress and “took care of her” in the gym.“I wanted to go to the Olympics,” she said. “I wanted to do it in college. It was definitely a hard decision to stop. Even now, it hurts, watching the Olympics. It just brings back so many memories of me trying to push to go. It’s just hard.”

Although Grey had to let go of her dream of performing on the Olympic stage, Biles remains an inspiration. Her recent stance is to be admired, she believes.“I think what she’s trying to say is that you’ve got to keep pushing, no matter what. Like, even if your mental health is bad, you got it. Take that into account and know your body’s limits.”

Grey is entering her senior year at Elk Grove’s County Day School and has shifted her athletic attention to track and field.

Post graduation, she has her sights set on running and studying art and photography at either Louisiana State University or Marymount in Virginia. She encourages girls of color to go into gymnastics even though it may not be as popular or accessible as other sports like basketball, volleyball or soccer.

“I think we should be in there,” she said of the gym.“Imagine a Black girl just looking up and seeing a Black girl up there in the Olympics. It’s crazy and I just think that little girls should know that this is something that they can do too.”