Jordan Chiles stepped up at the Tokyo Olympics — now it’s time for Paris

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.

“I was the underdog,” she says. “Everyone said, ‘Can she make the team?’ You can’t help getting those thoughts in your head, too.”

Jordan Chiles looks on with Simone Biles during the team final at the Tokyo Olympics. “I was the underdog,” Chiles says of that Olympic cycle. (Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images)

She did, by finishing third at U.S. trials in the summer of 2021, behind Biles and Suni Lee, and by essentially training to near perfection. For a full season heading into the Tokyo Games, she was the only gymnast to hit every one of her routines in the four major domestic competitions — 24-for-24.

That the mistakes came when the entire world was watching seemed incredibly cruel. Chiles faltered on her beam and bars routines, failing to qualify for a single individual event final. But when Biles withdrew with the twisties, Chiles, who planned to compete only in floor and vault in the team finals, was pressed into service in the other events.

In the team final, she came through with better scores. The performance wound up helping Team USA to a silver medal. A year later, she finally earned her spot in the world championships, helping the United States to a gold medal in Liverpool.

Afterward, Chiles went out and had herself a life. She signed with a marketing company, landed endorsements with Urban Outfitters and Pottery Barn Teen, worked on her clothing line, bought her parents a house and herself a car and, after deferring for two years, finally enrolled at UCLA. She went to class, made friends and tried to be as normal as a world-famous Olympic athlete can be on a college campus. She also toyed with her routines, welcoming the shift toward team success that NCAA gymnastics allows. In 2023, she won NCAA titles in the bars and floor and finished as the runner-up in the all-around.

The irony is that collegiate gymnasts compete more — there are meets nearly every weekend — and yet as the demands increased, Chiles made a blissful discovery. Her life didn’t have to be an either/or.

“My sport and my life can be separate,” she says. “I can have fun within my sport and outside of it as well. Not everything has to be about my sport.”

That, of course, becomes a far more difficult pursuit when the dangling carrot is a spot on the Olympic team. It is, currently, all about the sport, and Chiles’ epiphany should not be misconstrued as a de-emphasis on competitiveness. Once her shoulder injury is mended, she has every intention of approaching her training with the same gusto she always has and setting the same standard of excellence. That, Chiles says, needs to be clear.

“I didn’t come back to put on a face,” she says. “I came back because I have more to give.”

At various times in her career, Chiles has carried the torch as a Black woman and powerful athlete in a sport that lacked color and favored litheness. She has fought as an underdog to quiet the dissenters and find her spot on the U.S. team. And on gymnastics’ biggest stage, she has risen above her mistakes to deliver what her team needed.

She is an Olympian. She is a world champion. She is a daughter, a teammate, a friend.

And she is only getting started.

“I’m ready to go for the next six months with everything I’ve got,” she says. “And I know it’s going to be great no matter what because this time I’m going to do it for myself.”

At this, Jordan Chiles smiles.

Jordan Chiles competes on the balance beam during the team final at the Tokyo Olympics. Simone Biles’ withdrawal pressed Chiles into additional duty. (Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images)


How Simone Biles came all the way back for another shot at the Olympics

(Top photo from a Team USA photo shoot in November: Harry How / Getty Images)

You may also like...