Elite journey for young gymnast

Jordan Chiles is one of nine girls with high qualifications

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter


photoNaydenov gymnast Jordan Chiles, 11, recently qualified for USA gymnastics junior international elite status.

(/The Columbian)

Did you know?

• Jordan Chiles of Vancouver is one of nine girls in the United States — and the only girl in the region that includes the Pacific Northwest — who are qualified as junior international elite gymnasts. There will be several more testing opportunities this year, so a few more might qualify.

• Open to girls ages 11-15, junior international elite status is a significant early step toward competing for USA Gymnastics.

Gina and Tim Chiles had seen the gym near the mall. They heard friends and family suggest that their youngest daughter — who would use any flat space to perform a cartwheel or handstand — looked like a gymnast.

But when they eventually checked out Naydenov Gymnastics, enrolling 6-year-old Jordan in a beginner's class, they didn't dream it was the start of a journey to rare heights.

"We thought we were just going to let her burn off some of that energy," Tim Chiles said.

The energy is as present as ever. It is one of the ingredients that has lifted the Pleasant Valley Middle School sixth-grader to an elite platform.

Jordan, who will turn 12 next month, is one of nine girls ages 11-15 in the United States who currently holds USA Gymnastics junior international elite status. On March 5, she passed the optional skills test during a developmental training camp at the USA Gymnastics National Team Training Center at Karolyi Ranch in Huntsville, Texas.

"From my first event, I felt like I was going to have a good day," Jordan said.

Gina Chiles said it was a long two days of trying to concentrate on work at home in Vancouver while her daughter was in Texas, being judged by 2005 world all-around champion and 2008 Olympic silver medalist Chellsie Memmel, and by 1988 Olympian Chelle Stack-Marcella.

Gina Chiles received e-mails from coach Erika Bakacs reporting scores, but couldn't relax until a text arrived from Jordan that read: "Mommy I made it."

"Those were the most amazing words to read," Gina said.

In January at the national training center, Jordan completed the compulsory step in the junior international elite process. In February, she came up 1.1 points short of the 51.0 all-around score needed during her first attempt at the optionals test. This time, she finished at 52.150, with scores of 14.55 for vault, 13.0 for uneven bars, 11.35 for balance beam and 13.25 for floor exercise.

"I was very happy," Jordan said. "It got me very encouraged."

Encouraged too, are Jordan's coaches at Naydenov Gymnastics, Bakacs and Dimitri Taskov.

"It's the beginning of an interesting journey we are going to have," Bakacs said.

There are significant rungs yet to climb, many years ahead, but accomplishing junior international elite status before turning 12 puts Jordan in a pool of girls who might have a chance to become 2020 Olympians. To earn international elite status, Bakacs said, requires "a very high level of skills. And execution needs to be exact because the judges will mark you down for every little wobble."

Jordan was almost 7 when she started at Naydenov, older than many of the beginners. But she caught on quickly.

"She went from recreation (class) to pre-team in about a week," Gina recalled.

A year later, Jordan won the all-around title at her first Level 4 meet.

While her Naydenov teammates enter the championship phase of their season with state, regional and perhaps Junior Olympics national meets ahead, Jordan will be training for a pair of elite competitions this July that could earn her a chance to participate in the USA Gymnastics national championships, and eventually to a spot on the junior national team.

When the Naydenov coaches first explained to Gina and Tim Chiles the potential they saw in their daughter — and the commitment needed to turn potential into performance — Gina said she worried about how the process would impact Jordan. But support from the coaching staff and from Naydenov owner Kevin Jenkins has helped both gymnast and family cope with the increasing demands.

"This has actually helped her in school," Gina said. "She is a very focused and determined little kid."

Bakacs said Jordan adjusted well to the environment at the national training center, and to having to start performing at 8:30 a.m. Central Time.

Taskov said he was not surprised.

"She's solid," he said. "She's strong mentally — not just physically."

Jordan spends as many as 32 hours in a week at Naydenov Gymnastics, training with Bakacs and Taskov. Having an elite gymnast means the coaches must learn and teach more complex skills and routines.

"Everything changes," Taskov said. "She needs more difficult skills and connections. And it's not just the difficulty. Everything needs to be performed perfectly."

Gina and Tim Chiles are still learning about the sport their daughter is thriving in. But they understand the months ahead will include excitement and uncertainty.

Jordan's dad said his faith in God allows him to be calm about the challenges ahead for his daughter.

"I think it's her attitude toward it all" that impresses me most, her father said. "She just has this good attitude."

Gina Chiles said it has been strange to read occasional internet posts from as far away as Brazil and Japan predicting greatness for her daughter. Gina is thankful that her daughter is young enough that Jordan is oblivious to such hype.

"We know it's going to be a lot of hard work from here," Gina Chiles said. "Our part in it is to provide support, love and encouragement for Jordan — and for the coaches as well."