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Saturday, October 16, 2021

‘I’m just in a happier place’: Olympian gymnast Jordan Chiles recaptured her love for the sport

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Jordan Chiles has contorted her body through the air thousands of times, flipping and bending and balancing her way to Olympic fame and a level of stardom that’s forced her to confront an uncomfortable truth: This sport hasn’t always loved her, and she hasn’t always loved it.

Maybe gymnastics will never fully love her or make her feel wanted, but Chiles has made her peace by finding the parts of the sport that do work for her. She can’t help but crack a smile when talking about where she is now compared to just three years ago.

“The Jordan back in the day is probably very, very proud,” she said in an interview over Zoom in August.

Between bad experiences with coaches, losing confidence in her abilities and dealing with a gymnastics culture that can be brutal and abusive, Chiles thought it was time for her to give up the sport in 2018.

Then came Simone Biles, the gymnast all others will be compared to for the foreseeable future. Chiles joined Biles to train in Texas. It was a chance with new coaches, a new environment and a new opportunity. Chiles found her way back and made the Olympic team three years after almost quitting.

She and Biles now headline a group of gymnasts on tour to celebrate female athletes and the U.S. gymnastics team’s victories in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which included a bronze medal for Biles on the balance beam and a team silver. The Gold Over America Tour will be in Indianapolis on Oct. 22 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse (formerly Bankers Life Fieldhouse).

Chiles, now 20, is happier now than before. She’s back to normal after the Olympics, enjoying time outside and with her family, doing interviews and photo shoots. And that’s even as she continues to deal with the weight of gymnastics, where the amount of pressure and control placed on athletes has made many question the sport’s culture.

Chiles credits coaches and Biles, who’s become one of her best friends, for her recaptured love of gymnastics.

“I’m just in a happier place,” she said. “I know my boundaries; I know what I want; I know how to control what needs to be controlled.”

There are still battles within gymnastics, though, and the foe is often times unseen.

During the Tokyo Olympics, Biles dropped out of some events because of the “twisties” — or the sudden loss of spatial awareness that can be especially dangerous in a sport like gymnastics — and more emotionally complex reasons she laid out in an interview with New York Magazine.

Chiles has supported her friend and thinks there will be more movements like that in the future, building not just off of Biles in gymnastics but also Naomi Osaka in tennis and other female athletes who have put their emotional well-being before the sport.

But she also knows how limiting the sport can be.

“It’s all about if they’re gonna change it or if they’re gonna listen,” she said.

That leads to a tricky question: Who is “they”? She shrugged her shoulder high.

“The higher people out there,” Chiles said. “The people who control what competitions we go to, what we can and cannot do.”

For all of the uncertainty, Chiles knows she has at least found clarity within herself. She doesn’t pay attention to social media and doesn’t let others continue to peg her as the underdog.

“I’m not all those things that you guys tell me,” she said. “I’m somebody bigger than that.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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