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HomeSportsJordan Chiles shines at Tokyo Olympics, eyes Paris next

Jordan Chiles shines at Tokyo Olympics, eyes Paris next

Jordan Chiles is smiling, the beam nearly as bright as the green sweatshirt she’s wearing and the Olympic ring flex of a necklace dangling at the base of her neck. This is not necessarily a departure. Effervescence tends to be Chiles’ default position. Except there are smiles, the ones presented to the public as either a mask or an indulgence of politeness, and there are smiles. This one, bouncing from Chiles’ face a full 25 minutes into a video call, is accompanied by crinkling eyes and hands moving a mile a minute and cheeks soaring toward her ears. This is the genuine artifact.

The timing of this particular blast of joy is ironic. This weekend, she was supposed to be returning to competition for the first time since the Pan American Games in October, but she had to withdraw from the Winter Cup in Louisville, Ky., because of a shoulder injury. It is less than ideal, four months out from the U.S. Olympic Trials and five months from the Paris Olympics, but Chiles dismisses it with a wave of her hand, promising it won’t cause her much issue.

At 22 she is, as she aptly describes, young in the eyes of the world yet ancient in her insular world of gymnastics. Her body has been battered and restored, her spirit treated the same by the sport she has alternatively loved and detested in equal measure. But she has emerged on the other side as something more than just a wizened athlete; she has come into her full self.

“My motto these last two months is ‘I’m that girl,’” Chiles says. “I have nothing to prove to anyone. It’s about myself. I have nothing to prove, but I believe I have more to give.”

Chiles will be the first to admit she doesn’t have it all figured out. She does not want all the answers. The vagueness of possibility — of what her life might look like someday when gymnastics isn’t the central focus — makes her start riffing like a little kid at career day. How she could be anything she wants — a nurse, an architect — or do anything she wants. Maybe play an instrument one day. She shares her hopes to get into real estate and use it to help pull people out of difficult circumstances; she envisions a future where she gets married, has kids, gets to be a grandma. Seconds later she expands to a dream in which she takes a world that everyone says is faulty and instead finds a way to make it better.

It is exactly how you might expect someone to be talking while embracing the newness of adulthood, mixing simple goals and big hopes and trying to figure out exactly where she fits in it all. For much of her life, though, Chiles didn’t have the luxury to consider such normalcy. Her life was gymnastics.

“Gym, house, school,” she jokes. “There was only so much I could see.”

At some point, though, what once brought her joy — tumbling and bouncing through the gym — brought her only anguish. Chiles refers to her early relationship with the sport as being shoved in a black box — “Just walls, no light.” She has spoken previously about a coach, whom she chooses not to name, who subjected her to the sort of emotional and verbal torment that young girls like Chiles once thought they had to tolerate. Belittled for not being the picture-perfect pixie, she lost more than her confidence.

“I lost my voice,” she says.

She rediscovered it with an assist from Simone Biles, who suggested Chiles relocate and train with her in Texas. That move, in 2019, saved Chiles’ career and restored her joy, but it did not remove the singularity of focus. Hellbent on realizing her Olympic dream, Chiles, who was left off the world championship team three years running, poured everything into that goal. The COVID-19 pandemic, which pushed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics back one year, upended her timetable but not her intention.

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