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Jordan Chiles lost her spark a few years ago. The joy is back, and soon it could take her to Tokyo.

Jordan Chiles smiles after landing her dismount off the balance beam Friday night in St. Louis. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS — The highflying tumbling passes and the stuck dismounts that prompt her coach to lift her arms in celebration have put Jordan Chiles in this favorable spot. Chiles’s gymnastics routines have sent her climbing the standings of every meet she has entered this season, including here at the pressure-packed U.S. Olympic trials, where she’s in third place after the first night of competition.

And if Chiles makes the team heading to Tokyo, the massive progress she has shown this year is the reason. But that’s not what her mother, Gina, looks for in her youngest child’s recent success. Yes, there’s the consistency that earned Chiles top-four marks on three apparatuses Friday, and there’s the 57.132 all-around score that places her behind only Simone Biles (60.565), her training partner and the world’s best gymnast, and Sunisa Lee (57.666), another favorite to make the team.

But Chiles’s mom sees the confidence and the joy. She notices the way Chiles, 20, smiles through the competition and how, when most of the other competitors simply wave to the crowd during introductions, her daughter pulls out a Spider-Man-inspired gesture. Chiles’s skills are what might secure her spot in Tokyo when this competition concludes Sunday, but the joy, that’s new.

“Everyone’s looking at Jordan, her score,” Chiles’s mom said. “They’re looking at Jordan, her form. They’re looking at her gymnastics. And I just look at her dancing and smile.”

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A few years ago, Chiles lost that spark. She had an overbearing coach, and her mental state deteriorated. After a conversation with Biles at the world championships selection camp in 2018, Chiles decided to switch clubs. She wanted to graduate high school first, so she flew back and forth from her hometown of Vancouver, Wash., and Spring, Tex. Chiles didn’t start training full-time at World Champions Centre with coaches Laurent and Cecile Landi until the summer of 2019, just before the elite competition season began. Because of last year’s cancellations amid the coronavirus pandemic, Chiles’s excellent 2021 season is the first time the fruits of that change have been on display.

“They literally brought the love of the sport back to me,” Chiles said of her coaches, whom she has described as “the dopest people I’ve ever met in my life.”

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Sunday’s competition will require Chiles and the rest to perform on every apparatus again. Then the roster for Tokyo will be named — a four-member team, plus two individuals. Only Jade Carey has clinched an individual spot through the apparatus World Cup series. For the rest of the gymnasts here, dreams soon will materialize for some and evaporate for others.

Heading into the trials, Biles, Chiles and Lee seemed poised to be part of the four-person team. They finished in the top three at nationals, leaving only that fourth spot with significant uncertainty. The competition there is tight; 2016 Olympics alternate MyKayla Skinner is in fourth (56.598), followed by Grace McCallum (56.498) and Kayla DiCello (56.298). Their performances Sunday may control their Olympic hopes. But with the season Chiles has delivered, she has nearly done enough already.

Chiles has shown remarkable consistency for months. She has performed 20 routines without a major mistake since February across five days of competition — the Winter Cup, the U.S. Classic, both nights of the U.S. championships and now here in St. Louis. Chiles placed in the top three at each of those meets, and her emotion bubbled to the surface after her final routine at nationals.

That’s when Chiles realized how close she was to reaching the Olympics. Chiles noticed Cecile Landi tearing up, and that made her cry. Biles stepped in to tell her younger teammate that she deserved this. It’s the culmination of her work, talent and a healthy training environment. She’s happy and thriving.

“She is a different gymnast because mentally things have shifted for her,” Chiles’s mom said. “Everything’s in place the way that it should be in place for her. Back then, you could see the gift and the talent but not really the light.”

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Chiles ascended to the elite level within just a few years of starting classes. She’s named after Michael Jordan, and her family loves sports, but gymnastics had never been part of that equation. Before Chiles’s seventh birthday, her parents enrolled her in a recreational program, primarily to temper her hyperactivity. Chiles’s mom would instruct Jordan to speak while standing still with her arms by her side. But she couldn’t hold a conversation that way. Chiles needed to be moving, bouncing or spinning.

Around that time, Chiles’s mom traveled for work, leaving Jordan at home with her dad. Their high-energy daughter was in “rare form” that week, Chiles’s mom said. They desperately needed to find an outlet for Jordan — who already enjoyed flipping so much that others would ask how long she had been taking gymnastics classes — so they headed straight from the airport to a local club. They blindfolded Jordan on the way to her first class that week. She cried when they unveiled the surprise because she was hoping for a puppy. After the initial disappointment, she was captivated by the trampolines and the equipment that allowed her to flip freely.

Soon after, when the family watched the 2008 Summer Games, Chiles decided she wanted to be an Olympian. As a 7-year-old, she started to introduce herself as “Jordan, Olympic gold medalist, Chiles.” Gradually, that became realistic.

When the Chiles family watched the U.S. swimming trials last week and the joy from the athletes oozed through the screen, Gina Chiles heard her daughter take a deep breath. Then she left to go to her room. The emotion was too overwhelming and too personal. They have spent the summer trying not to think that far ahead, even as Chiles has continued to take strides toward Tokyo.

Gina Chiles has tried to envision the moment that may arrive Sunday evening, when her daughter could become an Olympian. But she can’t get her mind to that point. It gets too emotional. Chiles’s mom knows she’ll be overwhelmed with happiness, but there won’t be a newfound injection of pride.

“There’s not going to be a prouder moment if she makes the team,” she said. “I’m already there. It’s not that. I’m just literally excited for her.”

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