UCLA gymnast Jordan Chiles guided by a pursuit of greatness

After failing to be named to the US women’s team for the World Gymnastics Championships for the third time, Jordan Chiles began to doubt that she would ever put that honor on her resume.

The Chileans missed the 2017, 2018 and 2019 World Championships but secured a spot on the 2020 Olympic team by earning the third-best score at the US Trials. She was expected to compete in two events of the Tokyo team competition but was called up for all four events after superstar Simone Biles shockingly resigned over mental health concerns. Unlike her teammates, Chiles had no World Cup experience to rely on when she stepped in.

“You know the big stage. You know the crowds and stuff like that,” Chiles said. “I thought, ‘I’m on the biggest stage in the world. That’s crazy.'”

Contributing to a silver medal performance might have ended Chile’s elite career satisfactorily, a happily surreal farewell before she began her collegiate career at UCLA. She thrived in her freshman year as a Bruin, posting three perfect 10s and first-team All-Pac-12 honors on the uneven bars and floor exercise, and enjoying the camaraderie and freedom of college life, despite the Bruins not qualifying for the NCAA championships.

But she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had missed something. Jumping back to the elite level for another attempt at the world championships would be difficult because of the limited training time in collegiate gymnastics and the less complex skills. But Chiles has never shied away from challenges.

“It got to a point where I was like, ‘You know, maybe worlds isn’t for me,'” she said. “But then I could think, ‘Okay, if I try again, I’ll see how it all turns out.’

Jordan Chiles competes on the uneven bars at the US Gymnastics Championships in August.

Jordan Chiles competes on the uneven bars at the US Gymnastics Championships in August.

(Mike Carlson/Associated Press)

“My medals are my armour. I always tell the kids, no matter how many medals you get, no matter the circumstances or whatever, just remember when you look at why you got that medal.

— Jordan Chiles

“This last time for 2022 was a big one. I got very emotional because it was wow, finally I could achieve something I always dreamed of.”

Chiles helped the US win a team gold medal – and a place at the Paris 2024 Olympics – in addition to individual silver medals in vault and floor exercise at this year’s world competition in Liverpool, England. She brought that experience and those medals back to Los Angeles to begin her second season at UCLA, which will host the team’s annual “Meet the Bruins” intrasquad exhibition Thursday at the Pauley Pavilion.

The stamina that helped her make the US team at Liverpool spurred her throughout the competition after falling off the balance beam twice in the qualifying round and missing out on the all-around final. She stared at her demons in the team competition. She didn’t just stay on the beam – she scored the best team score of 13.333.

“My medals are my armour. I always tell the kids, no matter how many medals you get, no matter the circumstances or whatever, just remember why you got that medal,” Chiles said recently while sipping a smoothie at a downtown cafe.

“The Olympic medal, that was my armour, knowing that I went through aches and pains and everything, and even in that moment we did that, so I look at that. And with my World Championship medals, all three just say: ‘Wow, you did that. You tried three times and you succeeded the fourth time.’ Each is definitely a heartwarming thing. I couldn’t be prouder of myself.”

Jordan Chiles competes on the balance beam for the US women's gymnastics team at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.

Jordan Chiles competes on the balance beam for the US women’s gymnastics team at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.

(Morry Gash/Associated Press)

Chiles was named after Michael Jordan, which could have been a liability for any athlete. She considers it an honor, a subject she explored in an assignment in her first year in her communications course.

She delved deep into his life and learned that he left basketball for baseball but returned that he defied boundaries and expectations to build a brand that propelled him to stardom beyond the confines of the court. This resonated with Chiles, who starts each day by looking in the mirror and reminding herself to stay true to herself – who is fun, energetic, curious and able to see challenges as opportunities to shape her future improve, not fail as an opportunity.

“He was his own person. He did things that made me think if he could do it, so could I,” she said. “I will never do justice to Michael Jordan because he is one of a kind. Same with Serena Williams. Same with Simone Biles. The same goes for Michael Phelps. The same goes for anyone who thinks they are the GOAT, but you can live your potential and do it your own way.”

NCAA rule changes allowing athletes to be compensated for use of their name, likeness and likeness have benefited Chiles, whose advertising portfolio includes Urban Outfitters, Pottery Barn Teen, Toyota and gymnastics-related products.

“It’s the best of both worlds. I can enjoy things outside of my sport. And doing things within my sport is pretty cool because I’m showing the younger generation that you can do it. Do it,” she said.

Chile’s Olympic teammate Sunisa Lee, who won gold in the all-around before starting her collegiate career in Auburn, announced plans to return to elite gymnastics with a view to the Paris 2024 Games. Chiles said she hasn’t decided on Paris yet but hopes she can continue to transition back and forth between the collegiate and elite levels.

For now, she’s looking forward to her second season as a Bruin and the guidance of coach Janelle McDonald, who replaced Chris Waller after a season strained by a racially insensitive incident involving a former team member. Chiles knows McDonald through her friendship with Chile’s elite coach Cecile Landi.

UCLA gymnast Jordan Chiles holds the Olympic silver medal she won at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

UCLA gymnast Jordan Chiles holds the Olympic silver medal she won at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

(Allen J. Cockroaches / Los Angeles Times)

“You can definitely tell from the gym environment that the girls seem happier,” Chiles said. “I came over to visit the other day and went to the gym just to see how everyone is doing and I was like, ‘Oh, you guys look so happy.’ And they said they feel great and they love Janelle and all that stuff.

“I’m really excited to see where the season goes with a new head coach. I know it’s going to be very difficult, but I have a feeling it’s going to be a good challenge.”

For Chiles, another challenge is another opportunity to be great.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2022-12-12/jordan-chiles-ucla-bruins-gymnastics-worlds-olympics-medals UCLA gymnast Jordan Chiles guided by a pursuit of greatness

Emma Bowman

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