Simone Biles treated to a 'superstar' welcome at Oak Brook mall

  • Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles gives an autograph to a star-struck Emilia Martinez, 7, of Chicago on Wednesday at Oakbrook Center mall.

    Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles gives an autograph to a star-struck Emilia Martinez, 7, of Chicago on Wednesday at Oakbrook Center mall. Courtesy of Maricruz Ponce de Leon

  • Olympic champion Simone Biles meets with area gymnasts Wednesday at the Oakbrook Center mall.

    Olympic champion Simone Biles meets with area gymnasts Wednesday at the Oakbrook Center mall. Katlyn Smith | Staff Photographer

  • After meeting Olympic champion Simone Biles on Wednesday in Oak Brook, Emilia Martinez, 7, of Chicago insists she will never take her autographed purse off.

    After meeting Olympic champion Simone Biles on Wednesday in Oak Brook, Emilia Martinez, 7, of Chicago insists she will never take her autographed purse off. Katlyn Smith/ksmith@dailyherald

 
 
Updated 10/12/2016 11:25 PM

Sanjana Kumar rehearsed what she would say to her gymnastics idol.

She would get only a few minutes to meet Simone Biles in Oak Brook Wednesday afternoon, and the 11-year-old wanted to make an impression, no matter how brief their encounter.

 

By the looks of it, Sanjana could have been preparing for a big competition in roughly the hour she waited before Biles arrived at Oakbrook Center mall. The Lake Zurich native wore her red warm-up suit, paced outside the mall's Sears store and thought of the perfect compliment for an Olympic gold medalist.

"You flip so high," Sanjana said.

Such high praise was lavished on Biles, who signed autographs and greeted fans at the shopping center for about an hour Wednesday, one stop on a jam-packed schedule in the Chicago area. She and other members of the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team are performing Thursday night at the United Center for the Kellogg's Tour of Gymnastics Champions.

While Biles, 19, is accustomed to near-perfection in the gym, traffic and heavy rain meant things didn't go quite as planned at the mall.

Sanjana and her squad from the C.I.T.Y. Club Gymnastics Academy in Chicago and the 40-member team from the Chicago Park District's Peterson Park Gymnastics Center were supposed to perform a special routine for Biles, but showers prevented any outdoor tumbling.

Instead, Biles, who earned four golds and one bronze in Rio, posed for pictures with squealing gymnasts in small groups so their parents could get a good shot. Biles smiled almost as wide as the time Zac Efron paid her a surprise visit this summer.

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"I can't believe I got to meet her," said Isabella Rivelli, a 12-year-old from Bartlett who asked Biles to sign her shirt from a state competition.

Adults in the crowd showed just as much excitement to meet Biles. Krystal Gavras and Sarah Sekki, both Chicago Park District coaches, noted Biles is not just a dominant force in the sport -- she has her own namesake tumbling pass -- but also is a charismatic role model for budding gymnasts.

"Her gymnastics is legendary," Sekki said. "There's no one like her, so you feel like she's a superstar."

Katlyn Smith/ksmith@dailyheraldAfter meeting Olympic champion Simone Biles on Wednesday in Oak Brook, Emilia Martinez, 7, of Chicago insists she will never take her autographed purse off.
Katlyn Smith/ksmith@dailyheraldAfter meeting Olympic champion Simone Biles on Wednesday in Oak Brook, Emilia Martinez, 7, of Chicago insists she will never take her autographed purse off. -

Before Biles, who didn't give interviews, left Oak Brook to drop the puck at the Chicago Blackhawks season opener at the United Center -- where she got a nice ovation -- Emilia Martinez, 7, asked her to autograph an accessory.

"I'm never taking my purse off," she said.

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