TAMPA — A year ago, Shilese Jones placed 10th at the Olympic Trials, poured her heart out on Instagram and decided she was done with elite gymnastics.
After conversations with loved ones, especially her father, she changed her mind. Jones postponed enrollment at the University of Florida until 2024 because she has designs for the Paris Games.
The 20-year-old is off to a great start in this shortened Olympic cycle. She leads the all-rounder after the first of two competition nights at the US Championships.
“I dreamed about it,” she said. “It was beautiful.”
Jones, who has never been to an Olympics or world championships, topped a field of global medalists. She scored 57.2 points, keeping a distance from the 17-year-old Konnor McClain with eight tenths going into effect on Sunday, when the national champions are crowned.
Olympic medalists in Tokyo Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey are in third and fifth place respectively and are making a solid return to elite competition for the first time since the Games. Like Jones and McClain, they hope to be part of the five-woman team for the world championships this fall. That selection will be named after a selection camp in October.
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Jones, who had the best scores on balance beam and floor exercises, called it the best performance of her career. The only all-around title on her USA Gymnastics bio came in a small encounter in her senior debut four years ago.
Now she is in a position to become the oldest American women’s all-around champion in over 50 years. She can participate Simone Biles as the only non-teenager to win nationals during that period.
Biles has been out of competition indefinitely. Suni Leethe all-around gold medalist from Tokyo, is competing collegiately and plans to return to the elite level next year.
Few American gymnasts get a second chance to form their first Olympic team. A bit on Jones’ journey:
For last year’s Olympic Trials, she had to recover from a car accident for three to four months. While driving around a roundabout, Jones said someone hit the front of her car. She suffered a broken back and a broken foot.
From that, she came back to 10th place at Olympic Trials. USA Gymnastics sent the top nine women to Tokyo — five team members and four alternates — plus Carey, who qualified earlier. Jones was the highest finisher left at home.
“My heart is so torn it refuses to heal itself,” Jones shared in a since-deleted Instagram post. “I gave up everything to be where I am now.”
Five months later, Jones’ father, Sylvester, died after a long battle with kidney disease. In a GoFundMe to help with funeral and travel expenses, Jones wrote that her father’s dream was to see me on the Olympic podium one day and he devoted anything and everything to my gymnastics. Knock tired after a long day of dialysis to drive and pick me up from practices. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to support my gymnastics.”
Six months after his death, she shared on Instagram an image of a tattoo over her shoulder that read, “Dad, your name echoes in my heartbeat.”
“These last 6 months have been the hardest months of my life,” she wrote.
Jones’ family moved from Seattle to Ohio about eight years ago to support her gymnastics career. They moved back to Washington in January to be closer to the family. On Thursday, she wore a leotard with the Roman numerals XII XX MMXXI written in pink on her sleeve, the day Sylvester died.
“To be here and have the chance to do that,” she said of her performances, three days after she suffered a left big toe injury that hindered her preparation, “especially for my dad and my sister and my mom and the audience, it feels great.”
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