Naydenov Gymnastics slowly fills on this rainy afternoon with young girls with Olympic dreams. They surround a girl already living out their dream life.
Jordan Chiles is the first international-level female gymnast to come from the Pacific Northwest in a generation. The 16-year-old Prairie High junior became eligible for the US senior national team this April, and already Chiles has won an all-around silver medal at the 2017 US national championships in August and was an alternate to the world championships.
“This is a whole new ballgame,” said Chiles, who is training for an upcoming national team camp starting November 6 in Houston, Texas.
Chiles used to play in the outfield on a youth softball team. “All I’d do is either sit and pick daisies or do cartwheels,” she recalled with a smile, and eventually, her uncle Joe Velasquez brought her to Naydenov.
Soon enough, she was whisking off to national camps, and for the last six years she has competed on national teams around the world—she won the junior all-around title at the 2016 Jesolo Trophy championships.
“A couple of times, I’ve said I want to be done, but I’ve put so much effort into this sport, I couldn’t just quit,” Chiles said. “I wouldn’t be here without everyone who supports me.”
She looks around at the girls of all ages training alongside her—some hoping one day to be just like her, others hoping to be the ones to knock her off the national team—and considers what her success means to them.
“It’s amazing, because I didn’t think I could do it myself,” she said. “I hope they think, ‘If Jordan can do it, I can do it.’ That people put their feet in my footsteps someday would be so cool, and being a girl of color, it’s amazing to see how I can be a hero and role model to others.”
All across Clark County, there are gymnasts paving their own paths—either to the elite level that Chiles has reached, or perhaps to one day competing at the high school or college levels.
Weaver may be the closest Naydenov gymnast to following Chiles’ footsteps. The 13-year-old Frontier Middle School eighth-grader won Level 9 state and regional titles in the all-around and on the balance beam, qualifying her for Western Regionals and moving her up to Level 10 this season.
“The year before, I won regionals, so to win both this year was really awesome,” Weaver said. “Beam is my favorite event. I love the feeling when you stick something.”
Weaver described the skills she needed to master to move up to Level 10, the highest optional level possible before a gymnast reaches Elite status. For instance, she needed to learn a Gienger on the uneven bars, a back handspring layout and split jump on the balance beam, and a Yurchenko vault.
She credits working alongside Chiles with advancing her development. “We can learn with Jordan and work on drills with her,” Weaver said. “Then, when we have to learn it ourselves, we already know how to do it.”
While Weaver may be closest to matching Chiles’ Elite level status, Thomas may be the better bet to make it to the international stage. Thomas comes across to coaches and other gymnasts as mature beyond her years. Chiles recalled a letter she received from Audrey after she reached Elite status, stating her goal was to go to the Olympics as well.
Thomas, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Burnt Bridge Creek Elementary, set her sights on the 2024 Olympics after watching the 2012 Games in London on television.
“All the cool flips – most sports don’t do that,” Thomas said. “I wanted to stay up at night to watch, but my dad made me go to bed. Otherwise, he said I couldn’t watch in the morning.”
She won the Level 7 state championship last spring and took second at regionals and the Level 7 Invitational meet in the all-around, as well as regional titles in the floor exercise and uneven bars. She has since moved on to Level 8. “This year, I’ll have to earn my place at regionals,” she said.
Like Weaver, her favorite event is the beam. “I have all the Level 9 skills already,” she said. “It’s the fear that drives you. You have to beat the beam and not let the beam beat you.”
Weber competed for Northpointe Gymnastics for years, including qualifying for the Level 10 Junior Olympic National Championships for the second straight year in May after a third-place finish at the Region 2 championships, where she also won the balance beam and took third on the uneven bars.
“Over the entire season, I had a great beam routine,” she said. “But at nationals, I just got really nervous. There were a ton of amazing people there, and watching them was intimidating. This year, I’m going to mentally focus on myself as I compete and not get distracted watching others.”
The 16-year-old Mountain View junior decided over the summer to change to SWAG Gymnastics to work with Paul Rawlings, who she’d known for a while. “I just wanted a new experience with a different style of coaching,” she explained.
Her goals for this season are to develop a solid floor exercise routine and to place on the vault anywhere (“it’s the weakest of my four events”) as she works to earn a college scholarship. She has spoken with the coaches at Southern Utah University, and she also has been offered preferred walk-on status at Oregon State University.
A Few of Their Favorite Things
Mythbusters (Kallysta): I love all the fun they get to have on there. They’re always blowing stuff up.
Riverdale (Jordan): Ashton Locklear first showed it to me, and I got really addicted to it. I love how it’s about teenagers like me discovering the mystery of how this person died. I can’t stop watching it.
Mulan (Audrey): I love that she broke the rules, but with good intentions.
Red (Taylor): I don’t go for romantic things. It’s got a lot of humor in it, and it’s got good action scenes.
Heroes of Olympus (Ellie): It grabbed my attention, just the way it describes the things going on makes it seem so real.
Reading (Audrey): Reading is the best. It makes your imagination grow. Without reading, I’d be a boring person.
Science (Taylor): I’m hoping to go into a medical field when I grow up.
My mom’s chicken and broccoli casserole (Ellie): She adds curry powder to it. Once she mixes it in and adds cheese on top, it’s just so good.
Donald Duck (Audrey): He’s so funny. When he doesn’t get his way, he gets all red and explodes. It never gets old.
Mickey Mouse (Katelyn): I always watched Mickey Mouse when I was younger. I wish I was a member of the club.
Weber may have competition this year at the JO National Championships from Hull, a former Northpointe teammate who made it to nationals in the Junior F division last year, her first as a Level 10 gymnast, after finishing second at regionals.
“I tried other sports, but I always went back to gymnastics,” said the 16-year-old, who is home-schooled so she can focus on her sport. “When I was 3½, I was watching the Olympics (Athens in 2004) and saw Mohini Bhardwaj, and I told my mom I want to do that, too.”
Her favorite event is the floor exercise, on which she finished second at regionals and posted her best finish at nationals. “I’m just a very powerful tumbler,” she said. “I love putting on a show for everybody.”
She was disappointed with her finish at nationals but not discouraged. “I got a feel for what it was like to compete at nationals,” she said. “And I did really well for how far I’ve come. I’m going to compete at Level 10 again this year, and then go elite and try to make it to the Olympics.”
Hot on Hull’s heels is her fellow Northpointe gymnast, a 14-year-old freshman at Skyview who came back from a broken foot and broken hand that sidelined her for the entire 2016 season to qualify for the Level 9 Western Regional championships.
Epperly’s best event is the uneven bars, on which she took second at regionals and seventh at Westerns. “I like being upside down, swinging and doing tricks and impressing people,” she said. “I just love it so much.”
Epperly currently is battling back issues and took a couple months off after the Western Regionals to nurse her injuries. She is easing her way back into training and hopes to start competing at Level 9 meets soon, with her eye on getting back to regionals, moving up to Level 10 and eventually competing in college.