TAMPA — A year ago, Shilese Jones placed 10th at the Olympic Trials, poured her heart out on Instagram and decided she was done with elite gymnastics.
After conversations with loved ones, notably her father, she changed her mind. Jones deferred University of Florida enrollment until 2024 because she has designs on the Paris Games.
The 20-year-old is off to a tremendous start in this abbreviated Olympic cycle. She leads the all-around after the first of two nights of competition at the U.S. Championships.
“I’ve been dreaming about it,” she said. “It was beautiful.”
Jones, who has never been to an Olympics or world championships, topped a field of global medalists. She tallied 57.2 points, distancing 17-year-old Konnor McClain by eight tenths going into Sunday, when national champions will be crowned.
Tokyo Olympic medalists Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey are third and fifth, respectively, returning solidly to elite competition for the first time since the Games. Like Jones and McClain, they hope to be part of the five-woman team for the world championships this fall. That roster will be named after an October selection camp.
Jones, who had the top scores on balance beam and floor exercise, called it the best performance of her career. The lone all-around title on her USA Gymnastics bio came four years ago in a small meet in her senior debut.
Now, she is in position to become the oldest first-time U.S. women’s all-around champion in more than 50 years. She can join Simone Biles as the only non-teens to win nationals in that span.
Biles is on an indefinite break from competition. Suni Lee, the Tokyo all-around gold medalist, is competing collegiately and plans to return to the elite level next year.
Few U.S. female gymnasts get a second chance to make their first Olympic team. A bit on Jones’ journey:
Before last year’s Olympic Trials, she needed a three-to-four month recovery from a car accident. While driving around a traffic circle, Jones said somebody hit the front of her car. She suffered a fractured back and fractured foot.
She came back from that to place 10th at Olympic Trials. USA Gymnastics sent the top nine women to Tokyo — five team members and four alternates — plus Carey, who previously qualified. Jones was the highest finisher to be left home.
“My heart has been torn apart in such a way that it rejects to heal itself,” Jones shared in a since-deleted Instagram post. “I’ve given up everything to be where I’m at today.”
Five months later, Jones’ father, Sylvester, died after a long kidney disease battle. In a GoFundMe to help with funeral and travel expenses, Jones wrote that it was her dad’s “dream to see me on the Olympic stage one day and he devoted anything and everything to my gymnastics. Beat tired after a long day of dialysis to drive and pick me up from practices. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to support my gymnastics.”
Six months after his death, she shared on Instagram an image of a tattoo over her shoulder that read, “Dad Your name echoes in my heartbeat.”
“These last 6 months have been the hardest months in my life,” she wrote.
Jones’ family relocated about eight years ago from Seattle to Ohio to support her gymnastics career. They moved back to Washington in January to be closer to extended family. On Friday, she wore a leotard with the Roman numerals XII XX MMXXI written in pink down her sleeve, marking the day Sylvester died.
“Just to be here and have the opportunity to do that,” she said of her performances, three days after suffering a left big toe injury that stunted her prep, “especially for my dad and my sister and my mom and the audience, it feels amazing.”
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