FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Jordan Chiles didn't think she'd be here. Certainly not on the cusp of an Olympic berth. Or with the greatest gymnast of all time as a teammate and trusted friend. Or with her joy for the sport she's dedicated her life to renewed.
The 20-year-old's journey, one that could take another major step this weekend at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, is one of perseverance and resiliency. Oh, and talent, too.
Four years ago the pressure — both internal and external — of competing at the elite level had grown too intense. The culture Chiles found herself immersed in too toxic. The doubts about her own considerable ability too daunting.
“She was checking out completely,” Gina Chiles said of the youngest of her five children. “She was close to being done."
The nadir came following a visit to the national team training camp in 2017. Chiles had missed out on an international assignment. There were concerns that the behavior of her coach at the time had played a factor in the decision.
When she returned home, the girl her family calls “Chick" embraced her mother at the airport, Gina Chiles bawling and apologizing for her own inaction. While Jordan had regularly confided to her mother about how the relationship with the coach was affecting her, whenever they spoke to others about it, they were told by others “it's OK. This is how things are supposed to be.”
Only, Gina Chiles knew better. Her tears were ones of sympathy for her daughter and anger at herself for not taking action sooner. So she offered the precocious young woman named after basketball star Michael Jordan an out.
It's OK if you want to quit, Gina told her. The answer she received in return came as a surprise.
“She looked at me, she said ‘No. I have a dream, I have a goal, I want to try to make it happen,'" Gina Chiles said.
Only there was no quick fix. While Chiles did part ways with the coach, she remained on an island of sorts. The only elite gymnast in the state of Washington felt disconnected. Alone. Adrift.
“I had a bunch of coach changes and having those coach changes made me really hard on myself," Chiles said. “Made me feel like I didn’t want to be in the sport anymore.”
The trauma she experienced during her early years at the elite level lingered. Progress came in fits and starts. The gymnast who finished second at the 2017 national championships slipped to 11th in 2018.
“She had no light, no spark, no nothing,” Gina Chiles said.
A more drastic shift was needed. Her window to remain competitive at the sport's highest level was closing. Dimitri Taskov, who was coaching Chiles in Vancouver, Washington, at the time, urged Chiles to explore other options.
“He knew that I had more potential than what I was showing,” Chiles said. “He felt like he couldn’t push me further than what I needed to be. He told me he thought it’d be good for me to move and be with coaches that understand everything about elite and getting to the Olympics.”
Taskov wasn't the only one who thought Chiles might be better served elsewhere. Chiles and world and Olympic champion Simone Biles had started a friendship during national team camp. They broached the subject of Chiles joining Biles at World Champions Centre in Houston, Texas.
“That's when everything started to click,” Chiles said.
Almost immediately. Chiles flew to national team camp two days after her high school graduation in June 2019 and then flew directly to Texas. Less than three weeks later she competed at the U.S. Classic. While she finished 11th in the all-around, her scores were better. Fewer mistakes. More confidence. The athlete-first approach of new coaches Cecile and Laurent Landi a stark contrast to what she'd endured during her early days in elite.
“Cecile and Laurent brought the love back into the sport for me,” Chiles said. “That’s the one thing I was lacking. I no longer wanted to do it anymore. They helped me understand who I was as a person and who I am as an athlete. I was really, really happy when that came back.”
Chiles improved to sixth at 2019 nationals and gritted her way through world team trials on an aching left wrist pumped full of cortisone to help dull the pain. She didn't make the team. It didn't matter. Maybe for the first time in her competitive life, Chiles felt as if she belonged.
“My puzzle pieces were a little messed up when I (got to Texas),” Chiles said. “Now everything’s been put back together like it’s supposed to be.”
Still, she's not sure she would have been a legitimate contender for the 2020 Olympic team. Wrist surgery in the fall of 2019 had set her back. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, postponing the Games a year and giving Chiles time to recover and put together a program capable — when executed — of pushing her into strong contention to join Biles in Tokyo.
“She’s much more mature, she knows herself more," Laurent Landi said. "She still has her moments ... (but) she knows that she has a chance.”
One that seems to be growing stronger by the day. Competing for the first time in nearly 18 months, Chiles posted the top score in the all-around at the Winter Cup in February then she backed it up by coming in second to Biles at the GK Classic last month.
Chiles considers herself a totally different gymnast from the one who arrived in Texas unsure of herself. Her mother, however, isn't surprised at the transformation.
There's always been an inherent toughness to Chiles and offers the signature moment — as of now — of her daughter's career as proof. While competing on balance beam at the 2017 national championships, Chiles was attempting to execute a wolf turn, which requires a gymnast to crouch on one leg, extend the other and then spin.
About halfway through, Chiles appeared to lose her balance. Rather than hop off, she improvised, eventually spinning into a standing position that looked planned even though it wasn't.
“She is the biggest fighter that I know,” Gina Chiles said. “Not just gymnastics in her life, things that were thrown in her family’s path ... she still keeps digging and digging.”
Actually, make that soaring. After finishing runner-up to Biles last month, Chiles compared her life to a “humongous rocket ship.” Asked to elaborate, she brightens.
“The rocket ship is everything that’s been going through my life and other things that have happened," she said. "In that little rocket ship now I’m at a point where it just took off and I don’t have to worry about those things anymore.”
A ship pointed all the way — she hopes — to Tokyo.
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