FORT WORTH, Texas — All the talent in the world means nothing without confidence.
Jordan Chiles is a testament to that.
Until a few months ago, she was best known as the gymnast who’d gotten a shoutout from actress Gal Gadot for her Wonder Woman floor routine. Now, on the eve of the national championships, with the women starting on Friday, she’s established herself as the closest thing to a lock for the Tokyo Olympics as anybody not named Simone Biles.
“That's what I was struggling with throughout my whole elite career, trying to prove to people that they were right,” Chiles said in April. “I was kind of doubting myself. I realized being in quarantine and stuff that I need to do this for myself. Like, I need to have fun with this again.
“I need to be able to go out there and just be Jordan and not try to be somebody that – I don't know, like the next Gabby (Douglas), the next Simone,” she added. “I want to be the next Jordan. I’m myself.”
Turns out, the way to fulfill everyone else’s expectations was to let go of them.
The attention in the Olympic year is always on who’s going to make the team. But it’s always worth keeping an eye on the junior competition, too, to get an idea of who will be the gymnasts to watch in the next cycle.
In 2016, Chiles was near the top of that list. With a powerful vault and personality to spare, she showed the potential of being someone who could carry the next generation of Americans. She solidified that thought the following year, finishing second at the national championships.
But she struggled at the selection camp for the 2017 world championships, and didn’t make the team. Her confidence eroded even further over the next year, fueled by a challenging coaching situation and being the only elite gymnast at her gym.
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Finally, in June 2019, Chiles decided she needed to make a change and switched to the World Champions Centre, the gym owned by Biles’ parents.
“She’s an athlete who is so talented but lacked confidence,” said Cecile Landi, who coaches Biles and Chiles with her husband, Laurent. “It’s incredible the lack of confidence she had.”
Chiles acknowledges she was in a “dark place” when she got to WCC but said the environment there allowed her to “come out of my shell.” She was training alongside Biles, the reigning world and Olympic champion, and the Landises are widely considered the model of supportive and nurturing coaches.
“The environment in this place is so strong and giving and everything. Like you just feel welcomed,” Chiles said. “That’s how I felt when I first came here. I was just like, `Oh yeah, I can be here. I can do this.’ Like, this is where I'm supposed to be.”
But Chiles had a setback that fall, needing surgery on her left wrist in October 2019. Had the Tokyo Olympics been held as initially planned, she wouldn’t even have been in the conversation for the team.
“We just didn’t have enough time. We knew it was going to be just so short to try and make a difference with her,” Cecile Landi said.
Simone Biles is focused on the Tokyo Olympics and considering returning for Paris 2024
Sandy Hooper and Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
When the Olympics were postponed because of COVID-19, Chiles had to make a choice. She had already committed to UCLA. She could give up elite gymnastics and go to college, or she could continue for another year, knowing it would give her last chance to write her own narrative.
“My mindset now compared to what it was … is definitely different. I figured out that I need to do the sport for myself,” Chiles said.
Said Cecile Landi, “When she came back from quarantine, there was a switch in her. Like, 'OK, I have one year and I don’t want any regrets, so I’m just going to do everything I can.' "
The change was noticeable in February at Winter Cup, the first competition in more than a year for most gymnasts. Chiles won it easily, and her score of 57.050 would have won her the silver medal at the 2019 world championships.
She had the highest scores on vault and floor exercise, and posted the second-best score on balance beam. She also was fourth on uneven bars, showing the kind of well-rounded excellence that will be essential for this year’s Olympics, where the team size has been shrunk from five gymnasts to four.
“She needed that to feel like she belonged on top. She needed that boost,” Cecile Landi said. “That’s why we wanted her to compete at Winter Cup, to show herself and show the world, `I’m here. Count me in. I want to do this.’”
Chiles proved the performance was no fluke two weeks ago at the U.S. Classic, where she finished second – or first in the non-Simone division. “My baby girl won the Silver Gold ya’lll!!” Chiles’ mom, Gina, said on Twitter afterward.
Similar performances at nationals and the Olympic trials later this month would ensure Chiles a place on the Tokyo team. The top two gymnasts after nationals and the Olympic trials later this month are guaranteed spots, and a selection committee will pick the remaining gymnasts.
“She just needs to stay healthy and to be consistent,” Laurent Landi said. “For me, she’s going to have great chances.”
Chiles is winding up where everyone expected she would. She just needed the confidence to get there.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.