Jordan Chiles has been the breakout American gymnast of 2021 and, with two more strong meets this month, will likely be headed to Tokyo.
She won the Winter Cup all-around in February, the first significant domestic meet in nearly one year. She finished second to training partner Simone Biles at last month’s U.S. Classic, the tune-up for this week’s national championships and the U.S. Olympic Trials in three weeks.
Chiles, 20, has never competed at the world championships and moved 1,800 miles in the middle of the Olympic cycle. She twice seriously considered dropping down from elite gymnastics and giving up on the Games.
It would be an unusual road to Tokyo. She could be the second U.S. woman in the last 30 years to compete at an Olympics without prior world championships experience or a top-three finish in a U.S. junior all-around. (Tasha Schwikert did so at the 2000 Olympics, an alternate called up after Morgan White was injured.)
It’s also a path already laid out: in a book available on Amazon.
Chiles’ mom, Gina, is the author of “Dream Big Little Chick” about her fifth and youngest child. She wrote it in 2018 and published it in February 2020, just before the Olympics were postponed by one year. Gina’s daughter-in-law Megan illustrated.
“This is a story about a family of chicks who patiently wait for their new family member to arrive,” the Amazon description reads. “Little Chick is finally born and begins to dream herself. She begins her life journey and wonders what she will become. After trying many different things Little Chick decides that she wants to become a high-flying gymnast and quickly sets her focus on the Animal Olympics.”
Gina, a senior pastor at According to His Word Worship Center in Vancouver, Washington, always wanted to become an author. More so recently, to read her work to her six grandchildren.
“It was based on Jordan, but I was really thinking of little kids that had their own dream,” Gina said. “Especially when things didn’t always seem like it could happen.”
Before this year’s success, Chiles’ gymnastics career was defined by challenges.
She debuted as a senior elite gymnast in 2017 and placed second in the all-around at the U.S. Championships — where she created gymternet buzz for a head-spinning balance beam ad-lib. But, after a closed-doors selection camp competition, Chiles was named a non-traveling alternate to the four-woman worlds team.
The next year, Chiles fell to 11th at the U.S. Championships (while wearing a Wonder Woman leotard) and weighed dropping out of elite gymnastics. She conversed with Biles, who suggested Chiles move to the Biles family-owned gym in Texas.
Chiles accepted the offer and, after graduating high school in 2019, moved into a two-bedroom apartment a short drive from the World Champions Centre. Her mom came, too.
Chiles placed sixth at the 2019 U.S. Championships and did not make the traveling world championships team of five (plus an alternate) after a selection camp. Two weeks later, she underwent left wrist surgery to repair torn cartilage.
When the Olympics were postponed, it meant another group of teens met the Olympic age minimum in 2021, further crowding the world’s deepest nation in women’s artistic gymnastics.
Chiles thought again about giving up on the Olympics. She could always enroll at UCLA on a gymnastics scholarship in fall 2020 rather than defer for a second year.
On April 15, 2020, Chiles celebrated her 19th birthday and confided in Biles that she decided to keep going for the Olympics.
“I knew I had a job to finish,” she said.
Later that night, she woke her mom at 2 a.m. to share the news.
“She’s literally the life of me. I love her to death,” Chiles said. “She’s my best friend. I can’t thank her enough for everything that she’s done for me and the love and support that she’s given is 1,000 percent out of this world.”
The family started calling Chiles by the nickname “Chick” during her T-ball days. When she wore a batting helmet, Chiles reminded them of the “Chicken Little” cartoon character.
Chiles had no shortage of activities as a Pacific Northwest kid, including dance and track. In baseball, she could smack a home run but also picked daisies and did cartwheels when put in the outfield.
She started recreational gymnastics around age 6, was approached after one class to try out for the pre-team, skipped two levels and turned elite at 11.
In 2014, a braces-wearing Chiles won the U.S. Classic junior all-around just after turning 13. Biles won the senior all-around at the same meet, and they posed for pictures together. “Biles and Chiles” was born.
Chiles, while still on the junior level, attended the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials and bawled at the sight of Biles and others becoming Olympians. “I was ready for my turn,” she said.
It took five years. Chiles endured the personal trials of 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 and made it to the Winter Cup in February. “I was known as the underdog,” she said at the meet in Indianapolis.
None of the 2019 World Championships team members competed in the all-around at Winter Cup, but Chiles’ winning score of 57.05 would have placed second to Biles on both days of the last U.S. Championships in 2019.
“People finally know who I am,” Chiles said. “I don’t know any gymnast that … all of a sudden, it’s like, oh, whoa, where did she come from?”
Also important for her Olympic hopes: U.S. high-performance team coordinator Tom Forster‘s assessment.
“Everybody’s known that Jordan has tremendous potential to be extremely good and score very well internationally,” said Forster, one of three voting members on the Olympic team selection committee. “She’s had some unfortunate circumstances the last couple years where she can’t quite show what she’s really capable of.”
“Dream Big Little Chick” was also inspired by a phrase that Chiles often quoted as a child — “Believe in the power of your dreams.” It’s written in a cloud on the back cover.
Chiles was flattered when her mom told her about the story and called it “a pretty cool little book.” Tears trickled when Gina read it in front of the family for the first time.
“I was crying more so [because] she accomplished something that she has always wanted to do,” Chiles said.
Chiles will clinch a spot on the team for Tokyo if she places in the top two in the all-around at the Olympic Trials in three weeks.
Three more women are in line to be chosen by the committee after Trials. Chiles said her elite career will be complete after this season, and she’ll join the UCLA Bruins, whether this summer’s story ends in Tokyo or not.
“The moment has come, and your dream is in sight,” the book ends. “All the hoping and praying with all of your might. Show what you can do, believe what you can be. You dreamed big Little Chick, you dreamed bigger than me.”
On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi and NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.
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