nytimes – With the help of Simone Biles, Jordan Chiles found his happiness

ST. LOUIS – Jordan Chiles felt numb. She looked in her room in Vancouver, Washington, at the dozens of medals, the rainbows of ribbons, the trophies in training, all from a career as a gymnast that began when she was 6 years old.

None of this meant anything.

She asked her mother, Gina Chiles, to take everything away. Hide it. Throw it. Burn it. Just make it go away.

“I don’t want them in my room anymore,” she told her mother, who was taken by surprise.

“Wait, what, your rewards are the coolest thing there is,” recalls Gina Chiles. “We need to provide you with a full American gym for all! “

Gina Chiles did not push. As a mother, she understood. It was towards the end of 2017, and her daughter – who is one of the favorites to make this year’s US Olympic team following the women’s trials, which begin Friday in St. Louis – had some. fed up with his sport and the way he made it feel.

That year, in his second senior competition only, Jordan Chiles won the all-around silver medal at the national championships, blowing the internet with an unconventional stop on the beam. She was considered a rising star.

But she was not part of the American team that would participate in the world championships in Montreal. Chiles was stuck watching from home. Although she performed well, she hadn’t been on the roster for any international event that year.

“I didn’t think sport wanted me anymore,” Chiles, 20, said in a video interview last week. “So I went in the opposite direction. “

She blamed her former coach, in part, for her dissatisfaction. Earlier in 2017, Chiles had left this trainer, whose methods she found authoritarian. His self-confidence was shattered. She briefly worked with another coach, but by 2018 Chiles “had quit the sport,” her mother said.

After being told for years to watch her food intake and sometimes only eat soup, Jordan Chiles said she had given up on strict diet plans and started eating sweets and food. from Starbucks. She started attending birthday parties and sleepovers with friends, no longer worried that socializing would be blamed for poor workout the next day.

But at the nationals in 2018, Chiles finished 11th in the all-around. She took that as a clue.

“I guess this sport is coming to an end for me because things just aren’t working out at all for me,” Chiles recalls, thinking. “I just wanted to finish high school and go to college. But then I had a conversation with Simone.

Simone as in Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast in the world. She would welcome Chiles and come close to her like a sister, helping her return to the top of the sport.

Chiles’ parents Gina and Timothy Chiles signed up Jordan for gymnastics lessons after Timothy spent a week alone with her while Gina was away on business. Jordan, the youngest of their five children, had grown into a whirling Tasmanian devil, bustling from morning to bedtime, jumping furniture and bouncing off walls, and her dad couldn’t take it anymore, recalls Gina Chiles with a laugh. .

So one day, they blindfolded Jordan, took her to a local gym, and surprised her with class. When they took off the blindfold, she said, “Ah, I thought you bought me a puppy. She quickly learned to love the sport despite its lack of fuzzy cuteness. The sport seemed to like him in return.

It wasn’t T-ball, where Jordan – who goes by Michael Jordan’s name – earned the nickname Chick, after the character in Chicken Little. Jordan’s helmeted head looked huge, like Chicken Little’s, as she stood at the plate, ready to hit another howler, her mother said. While Jordan was a great hitter, his game wasn’t exactly complete; she preferred to get some air – not fly balls – by rolling and turning around in the outfield.

In gymnastics, however, Chick Chiles was good at everything. By the age of 11, she was named an elite, at the highest level in the sport, and for years she was the only elite gymnast in Washington State. At the junior level of gymnastics, she won the all-around US Classic in 2014, a year when Biles won the senior title. They were called “Biles and Chiles”, an unstoppable future duo.

As Gina Chiles learned in 2017, the hard way, this success came at a high price.

Earlier this year, Jordan had returned from a national team training camp after being sidelined for a spot in an international competition. At the airport, she sobbed when she saw her mother. And still in the car.

For about an hour, mom and daughter pulled into their driveway and cried together as Jordan discussed his frustrations with a sport long known to celebrate coaching control. There had been suggestions that Jordan shouldn’t lift a single weight or gain an ounce because she was already so muscular. And that her hair, thick and textured, was “too poufy” and looked like she had two heads when she twisted.

Gina Chiles stayed up until 2 a.m. that evening. She recalled a time when a coach cut Jordan’s braids to make her neck appear longer, a look that then-national team coordinator Martha Karolyi would have preferred. And Jordan was told she had a bad attitude, when she was just a teenager using her new voice.

“I didn’t understand that it had been so bad for her,” said Gina Chiles. “So I apologized like crazy. I told him, ‘I’m so sorry. I missed it. I messed up. It’s my job to protect you, and I made a big mistake.

Jordan Chiles said, “I don’t think I’ve heard the word ‘sorry’ come out of my mom’s mouth so many times.

At the end of 2018, Biles had stepped in to make a suggestion: why didn’t Chiles just move to Texas to train with Biles at her gym, the World Champions Center, with coaches Cécile and Laurent Landi? They were tough, meticulous and knowledgeable, but were adamant that gymnasts lead balanced lives so that they could better cope with the pressure of the sport, Biles told Chiles. But the move had to be what Chiles really wanted, not something made out of obligation. It was the only condition.

Right away, Chiles knew she had to say yes. Before she could go down south, however, she had one important business to deal with: complete high school.

She went to prom wearing a red sequin mermaid dress, played seniors day, and locked herself in school with her classmates for a fun night out, things most gymnasts do. elite never do, especially a year before the Olympics they hope to compete in. Two days after graduating from public high school, Chiles walked through the front door of Biles’ gymnasium in Spring, Texas.

She took a deep breath. I tried to keep an open mind. It was the first time in ages that she wouldn’t be the star of her gym. She wondered if she could trust the other elite gymnasts and the coaches.

While Biles took on the role of Chiles’ big sister, the Landis were tasked with installing Chiles. Delaying the move to Texas meant she now had a short schedule to prepare for the 2020 Olympics. Her first event was the US Classic, at around four weeks old.

“We always knew she was super talented, but I remember seeing her at Classic and being shocked at how beautiful she was,” Cécile Landi said in a phone interview. “Laurent and I were like, ‘Wait, wait, wow, this is just the start.'”

Cécile Landi called the Chilis’ preparation for the Tokyo Olympics a “race against time” – until the postponement of the Games gave them another year to prepare. In November 2019, Chiles underwent surgery on her right wrist, so the postponement also gave her time to heal.

Chiles has kept herself busy while she was away from the gym, starting a business called Melanin Drip Clothing Co., which sells clothes like hoodies with the words “Beautiful, Black & Brilliant”. She also made it clear that elite gymnastics doesn’t have to be such a rigid and miserable place.

Biles will organize dinners or visit resorts. Elite gymnasts will joke with each other in training or even in competitions. The Landis will actually listen to what their gymnasts have to say, without berating them for speaking up, Chiles said.

“I discovered that gymnastics doesn’t always have to be about being so hard on yourself and having so many doubts,” she said. “I realized that when I saw Simone compete. She looks like she’s having fun, laughing, and laughing, and she doesn’t look stressed or tired. I was like, ‘You know, I’m going to try this one of these days and see how it goes.’ “

It went pretty well, just at the right time.

This year, Chiles won the all-around Winter Cup in February, the first major competition since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and finished second behind Biles at the US Classic in May. At the national championships this month, she was third. Her consistency has been remarkable: she hasn’t made any major mistakes in competition all year, succeeding in all her routines.

“I think she’s a completely different athlete now than she was in 2018,” said Tom Forster, who heads the Women’s National Team program. “So exciting to see. “

Equally remarkable is that Chiles did everything with a cheerful, smiling and singing demeanor during meetings, even between events, moving to the beat of the music being played in the arena. At the end of the National Championships earlier this month, she encouraged her fellow gymnasts to perform a wedding reception dance, the Cupid Shuffle, on the arena floor.

Less than an hour before that dance party, Chiles had completed her last routine at the national championships, and the weight of the moment had hit her. His latest effort to make the Olympics look like it’s paying off.

She burst into tears just thinking about it, grateful that her family has supported her, that Biles – one of the best athletes in history – has supported her, that she has coaches who support her and believe in it.

It took a post-meeting pep talk from Biles to remind him that, yes, it was true. No coach needed to validate it. No score needed to prove it.

“You belong here,” Biles told him.

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