With new confidence and Simone Biles as her training mate, Jordan Chiles is ready to make the Olympic team

Jordan Chiles won the all-around at the Winter Cup in February, then finished second to Simone Biles at last month's U.S. Classic. The top two all-arounders at Olympic trials at the end of June earn automatic spots onto the Olympic team. Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Jordan Chiles was just joking when she first started talking to Simone Biles about changing gyms and joining her at the World Champions Centre in Spring, Texas.

But the more they talked about it, the more Chiles couldn't stop thinking about it.

She enjoyed training at Naydenov Gymnastics in her hometown of Vancouver, Washington, but she also felt like she was on the outside, looking in at an Olympic team spot.

She wanted in. All the way in.

Then, in October of 2018, the two were assigned as roommates for the week at the world championship team trials.

"I told her, 'I think I'm going to do it. I'm ready now,'" Chiles said. "Simone was like, 'This is a big thing, are you sure?' But I knew I was and that I had to make a change."

Chiles didn't make the team for worlds, but she went back home with a new plan. In June, just weeks after walking across the stage and collecting her high school diploma, she moved to Texas.

Two years later, she believes it's one of the best decisions she has made. With new coaches and the best gymnast of all time as her training mate, she's performing better than she ever has.

At the Winter Cup in February -- the first major U.S. competition since the beginning of the pandemic -- the 20-year-old turned heads by winning the all-around, vault and floor titles. Then she placed second in the all-around at last month's U.S. Classic.

"Jordan has improved significantly since she first arrived at WCC, both mentally and physically," said Biles. "It's been exciting to watch her grow in and out of the gym. I see her pushing herself every day, which is inspiring. She's sacrificed so much for her dreams."

Once a long shot, Chiles is now a frontrunner for one of the four Olympic team spots for Tokyo -- and will be one of the most-watched gymnasts at this weekend's U.S. championships in Fort Worth, Texas.

In the world of elite gymnastics, Chiles has always taken her own path. While most of her peers were starting their first tumbling classes as toddlers, Chiles didn't set foot inside a gym until she was seven. And even then she didn't exactly understand what she was seeing.

"I thought it was just like a trampoline park," she said. "All the girls were doing flips and stuff, and I thought it looked like fun."

But her attitude changed a few months later when she watched the 2008 Olympics on television. She loved the entire American team, but was awestruck by Shawn Johnson. Her tiny-yet-muscular stature and powerful tumbling reminded Chiles of herself.

It made her realize that competing at the highest level was something she could do too. Chiles remembers waiting for what felt like hours in an autograph line at a Nike store in Seattle, shortly after the Games. She finally got a chance to meet the four-time medalist -- and says her smile never faded that day.

An inspired Chiles then committed herself to her new goal of one day becoming an Olympian. She progressed quickly. She needed just three years to reach level 10, the highest level before elite. She didn't think there was anything unusual about her rapid ascent up the gymnastics ranks. Until, that is, she was invited to her first national team camp as a junior gymnast.

"I didn't really fully understand what elite even was until that point," she said. "I just thought it was another level but when I walked in and saw Kyla [Ross] and Aly [Raisman], I was just like, 'Oh my goodness, I'm with the big girls. What am I doing here? Am I going to the Olympics? This is crazy.'"

Chiles of course didn't go to London with Ross and Raisman in 2012, nor was she even age-eligible for the 2016 Rio squad, but being around the gymnasts she admired was constant motivation.

When Chiles was finally old enough to make her senior debut, it was stunning. She placed second all-around at the 2017 U.S. nationals in just her second senior meet, and became an immediate fan favorite when she creatively salvaged an out-of-control wolf turn on beam by morphing it into a triple turn.

The next year, Chiles finished in third place at a World Cup event in Stuttgart, Germany, in March, and took home gold medals on vault and floor at the Pacific Rim Championships in April. But her momentum began to fizzle during the summer's slate of national competitions, with eighth and 11th place all-around finishes at Classics and nationals. And she wasn't named to the world team in the fall.

"I felt like I was a nobody and no one knew who I was," she said. "I started questioning, 'Do I even need to be doing this sport?' After [national] championships, I didn't want to do it anymore. I thought about quitting elite and dropping down to level 10 and then going to college and enjoying my college career. But my family was like, 'No, you can do this' and Simone was so supportive and so encouraging. And to get that from her, this amazing Olympic athlete, I was so honored and it was a big help to get me through."

When Chiles' own coach Dimitri Taskov, who she had been training with since the beginning, told her he didn't think he could take her any further in the sport, she knew it was time to take Biles up on her offer.

Biles had recruited Cecile and Laurent Landi, the former coaches of her Olympic teammate Madison Kocian, to run the women's program at WCC. Olympic alternate and world champion Ashton Locklear was training with them as well at the time, so Chiles knew there would be no shortage of daily inspiration. She took a leap of faith, leaving behind everything she knew in Washington, and moved to Texas with only her mom in tow. Her father remained in Washington, as did her four adult siblings.

She considered Biles a friend, but was immediately surprised by how encouraging everyone was from the moment she walked in the door.

"The experience of [training with Biles] in the gym and being her teammate definitely is a game-changer," said Chiles. "I never had a teammate before this and when I went there, I was like, 'Whoa, this is what it is like to have teammates? This is cool.

"It's a different type of energy than you see in most gyms. We all laugh, we tell jokes, we give each other hugs and high fives and fist bumps and it gets us through the tough days. We all want to push each other to do our absolute best."

The atmosphere is intentional. Biles has long been known for her joyful attitude, and Cecile and Laurent Landi believe a supportive environment creates happier and more productive gymnasts and people. Their methods have been successful so far, with four WCC gymnasts currently on the 19-member national team.

In a sport that has sometimes struggled with diversity, having many Black teammates -- and role models -- has also not escaped Chiles' notice.

"Coming into the sport when I was younger, there obviously weren't a lot of African Americans in the gymnastics world," she said. "It feels like the world has changed when it comes to the diversity aspect of it, and I'm in awe."

Chiles originally thought she would have a year at her new gym to prepare for her Olympic quest, but that turned into two when the Olympics were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. She had once been slated to join the UCLA team in 2019, but now she deferred, yet again.

The pandemic kept her and her teammates out of the gym for seven weeks - a near eternity to be away from the sport - but she did her best to stay motivated and in shape with conditioning sessions over Zoom and other at-home workouts suggested by her coaches.

When they returned to the gym, Chiles continued to thrive.

"I think the goal of all gymnasts is trying to get as close to Simone as possible," said Cecile, "But having Simone cheer her on and help her and even give some advice, while also showing everyone here that it's humanly possible to do some very hard skills, is inspiring."

At the Winter Cup in February, Chiles wasn't sure how she would do after such a long break, but was just excited to have the opportunity.

When she walked out on the floor for her first event, everything just clicked. She was immediately focused but also was surprised by how much she was enjoying every moment. She didn't allow herself to look at the scoreboard - something she used to pay incessant attention to - and when she mounted the beam for her final event, she had no idea she had a chance to win the all-around title.

Her 14.5 tied for the day's highest score on beam and gave her the all-around title by a whopping 1.95 margin over second-place finisher Shilese Jones. Chiles also was victorious on vault and floor. (Biles opted to skip the event but watched from home and said over email she was "SO excited" for Chiles.)

"She knew she could do it," said Cecile. "And we were just so happy that finally she was able to put all the pieces together at one time and prove to herself mostly that she could, but also to show others that, 'Count me in, I'm going to be a part of this, I'm going to fight for [an Olympic spot].' It gave her such a boost and that confidence that she needed."

Armed with her newfound self-belief, Chiles finished second all-around at last month's star-studded U.S. Classic, trailing only Biles. National team coordinator Tom Forster, who ultimately has the final say in the Olympic roster, was impressed by her performance.

"She took full advantage of [the time off during the pandemic]," he said after the meet. "I truly think she's a completely different athlete now than she was in 2018. It's exciting to see."

Still, with so many talented women competing and a highly subjective selection process, Chiles knows nothing is guaranteed. Just four will make the final team, and two can earn individual spots (Jade Carey has already qualified for one such spot.), Every single event, every single moment, matters from this point forward. Chiles is trying to leave nothing to chance, but will be proud of herself regardless of what happens.

"I know I can [make the Olympic team]," said Chiles. "When I think about everything that I've been through, and now where I am now, I feel so confident and I enjoy doing what I love. When I was younger I felt like I needed to prove something to the world but now, I'm just doing it for myself."