Jordan Chiles failed. At least, she told everyone as much.
The 20-year-old UCLA-bound freshman faltered on bars and beam during Olympic team qualification, a shocking break in form after Chiles had hit every routine for the past year to earn her spot on the Olympic team. Behind the scenes, Chiles told her teammates she failed them. From the hotel afterward, she called her parents and told them the same thing.
No one believed her, but she also started telling herself that she failed.
“It was uncharacteristic for me to be doing that,” Chiles said recently. “If it was the old Jordan, yes, but as of right now, that was ridiculous.”
While “Old Jordan” made an unwelcome cameo during the qualifying rounds, “New Jordan” walked away from the Games as a silver medalist. When Simone Biles withdrew from the team final because of mental health concerns, Chiles helped Team USA claim a medal after a surprise all-around performance. That’s the gymnast UCLA will welcome to its campus this winter, a confident, focused and empowered athlete ready to tackle a new challenge.
Chiles may have already achieved a life-long goal of competing and medaling in the Olympics, but she’s not done dreaming yet.
Sitting on a bench under a tree outside the Universal Sheraton hotel on a recent trip to L.A., Chiles imagines her long-awaited college career. She hopes to lead UCLA to the NCAAs after the Bruins missed the cut for the first time since 2006 last year. She’s planning a dynamic floor routine full of creative dance steps that marks her entrance into the less-restrictive world of college gymnastics. Above all, get ready for fun.
Chiles needs that more than anything.
“I personally just want to be able to have the fun experience because the elite [level] is not somewhat fun,” Chiles said.
Raised in Vancouver, Wash., Chiles reached elite status — the highest level of gymnastics — by 11 years old, just five years after her parents enrolled their rambunctious youngest child in the sport. In 2014, she won the junior all-around and vault titles at the U.S. Classic. Three years later in her third senior elite competition, Chiles placed second in the all-around at the U.S. Championships.
The performance put her on the map. But things took a sudden turn when she was left off the world championship team one month later.
“What I felt then was feeling like I was not wanted,” said Chiles, who was named a non-traveling alternate. “I felt like my teammates didn’t want me, I felt like the sport didn’t want me.”
She wanted to throw away all her trophies, ribbons and medals. Looking at them only hurt her.
Now looking at her Olympic silver medal, Chiles feels powerful. Controlling coaches fixated on stereotypes of a perfect gymnast’s body tried to steal Chiles’ joy. In Tokyo, she smiled wide while standing on the podium with the medal hanging in front of her chest.
“It’s my shield,” Chiles said. “It’s something that will always protect me. No matter what, I will look back and know that there are memories I will always cherish, know that although there were things that happened in the past, I was able to push past them.”
Chiles won the medal while stepping in for Biles, her closest friend and confidant. After Chiles considered quitting elite gymnastics and just enrolling at UCLA after she finished high school, it was Biles who stepped in with a suggestion.
Come train with me, the most decorated gymnast in world championship history said in 2018.
Chiles took her up on the offer the following year. After graduating from public high school in 2019, Chiles relocated to Spring, Texas, to train under Laurent and Cecile Landi at World Champions Centre. Her confidence had been torn down for years, resulting in inconsistent performances, but Chiles became such a rock during competition that she didn’t miss a competitive routine in 20 tries leading up to the Games. She benefited from the pandemic postponement that allowed her to recover from a wrist injury.
For the gymnast who won over fans while wearing a Wonder Woman leotard in 2018 and set her Olympic floor routine to the “Spider-Man” soundtrack, training at WCC was the part of Chiles’ superhero origin story — the protagonist, wounded from an early fight, stowed away to regain strength before emerging stronger than ever.
Gymnasts who shined at the Tokyo Olympics will need to adjust to NCAA rules as they join college teams following the Games.
But Chiles’ path isn’t as tidy as the superhero movies she loves. The Hollywood ending would have featured her nailing each routine in Tokyo. She could have challenged for an individual medal on vault or floor, her strongest events.
Instead, Chiles didn’t make any event finals. During the preliminary meet, she had a major form break in bars, tapping her feet on the mat, and two falls on beam. She just put too much pressure on herself, she said a week later.
After the qualifying round, Chiles retreated to the hotel, and then to the gym, where she buckled down to prepare for team finals. She told herself to keep believing in the power of her dreams. They had taken her this far.
“I was going to give it my last shot and show what I could do and why I was here,” Chiles said.
Chiles proved her mettle when she stepped up and hit her beam and bars routines after they doomed her in qualifications. Watching live from Los Angeles at 4 a.m., UCLA coach Chris Waller, already itching to add Chiles to the roster, was even more excited by the resiliency the future Bruin showed.
Two years after graduating from high school, Chiles is ready to go to college. She twice deferred her enrollment to pursue the Olympics. She’s already in love with L.A.
The city suits Chiles, a budding entrepreneur whose lengthy list of aspirations includes everything from finally competing in a World Championship after being left off the team three times, being in a Marvel movie and winning an NCAA championship before possibly returning to the Olympic stage in 2024. Soon she can settle in the city that’s already supported so many big dreams.
She can still have her Hollywood ending.
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