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 talking to loved ones, especially her father, she changed her mind. Jones has delayed enrollment at the University of Florida until 2024 because she has plans for the Paris Games.
The 20-year-old has made a great start to this shortened Olympic cycle. She leads the all-around after the first of two nights of competition at the US Championships.
“I dreamed about it,” she said. “It was wonderful.”
Jones, who has never been to the Olympics or World Championships, led a field of global medalists. She scored 57.2 points and thus distanced the 17-year-old Konnor McClain by eight tenths until Sunday when the national champions are crowned.
Olympic champion in Tokyo Jordan Chiles and Jade Carey are tied for third and fifth, 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 Cup this fall. This list is named after a selection camp in October.
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Jones, who had top marks on the balance beam and floor exercise, called it the best performance of her career. The only all-around title in her USA Gymnastics biography came in a small competition in her senior debut four years ago.
Now she is in a position to become the oldest first-time USA all-around champion in more than 50 years. She can join Simone Biles the only non-teen to win national teams during that span.
Biles is on an indefinite break from competition. Suni Leethe Tokyo all-around gold medalist, competes collegially and plans to return to the elite level next year.
Few US gymnasts get a second chance to make their first Olympic team. A little bit on Jones’ journey:
Before the Olympic trials last year, she had to recover for three to four months after a car accident. As she rounded a roundabout, Jones said someone hit her car in the front. She suffered a broken back and a broken foot.
She came back from there to finish 10th in the Olympic trials. USA Gymnastics sent the top nine women to Tokyo — five team members and four alternates — plus Carey, who previously qualified. Jones was the highest finisher left at home.
“My heart has been so torn apart it refuses to heal itself,” Jones shared in a now-deleted Instagram post. “I gave up everything to be where I am today.”
Five months later, Jones’ father, New Year’s EveShe died after a long battle with kidney disease. In a GoFundMe post on funeral and travel expenses, Jones wrote that “her father’s dream was to see me on the Olympic stage one day, and he dedicated everything and everyone to my gymnastics.” Beat tired of driving and picking me up from the practice after a long day on dialysis. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to support my gymnastics.”
Six months after his death, she shared a picture of a tattoo across her shoulder on Instagram with the caption, “Dad, your name resonates with my heartbeat.”
“These last 6 months have been the toughest months of my life,” she wrote.
Jones’ family relocated to Ohio from Seattle about eight years ago to support her gymnastics career. They moved back to Washington in January to be closer to extended family. On Thursday, she wore a leotard with the Roman numerals XII XX MMXXI written in pink on her sleeve, marking the day Sylvester died.
“Just to be here and have the opportunity,” she said of her performances three days after sustaining a left big toe injury that hampered her preparation, “especially for my dad and sister and mom and the crowd feels amazing.”
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