Balancing Act – Chiles, Carey and Wong Prove You Can Do Both | 2022 U.S. Championships | Inside Gymnastics

Balancing Act – Chiles, Carey and Wong Prove You Can Do Both | 2022 U.S. Championships | Inside Gymnastics

After a huge 2022, Lexi Zeiss is looking ahead to an incredible 2023! On Saturday in Louisville, she’ll kick off her 2023 season at Winter Cup. We sat down with Lexi after Worlds to learn what she learned and what’s in store for the exciting road ahead!

Original feature appeared in the February 2023 issue of Inside Gymnastics magazine. Enjoy this extended version!

By Ashlee Buhler, with Gina Pongetti Angletti contributing 

Earlier this year Jordan ChilesJade Carey and Leanne Wong were taking the college gymnastics scene by storm – performing week after week in front of thousands of fans, earning perfect 10s, and wowing us with the big skills we don’t see too often in college gymnastics.

14 weeks after the end of their freshman seasons, the trio came to Tampa for the 2022 U.S. Championships to continue their elite careers – their sights set on Paris 2024. No longer do they have to choose between competing on the world stage, cashing in on their success through endorsement deals, and having the time of their lives competing for their dream college.

At the elite level the sport can be just as time consuming as it is physically demanding, making it a rarity for gymnasts to balance both. Chiles, Carey and Wong are emblematic of changing times. Others have done it, most recently Wong’s Florida teammate Trinity Thomas, who represented the Gators after her freshman season at the 2019 U.S. Championships, but the list is far and few in between. Some have made comebacks after college, such as 2004 Olympic team silver medalist Mohini Bhardwaj and 2020 Olympic vault silver medalist MyKayla Skinner but for most the balance between elite and college simultaneously can be too much to manage. For the majority, college is the final leg of their career.

Contrary to the women’s side, balancing elite and college is the norm for the men. The competition floor at an event like the U.S. Championships is packed with members of different college teams across the country. (Stanford had a team of nine in Tampa!) For them, college gymnastics often serves as the launching pad to greater success on the international scene, rather than the end of their career.

“I always knew I wanted to do NCAA gymnastics,” said Stanford’s Colt Walker. “I grew up going to camps with the NCAA athletes and coaches and it was a huge motivating factor, looking up to those guys and knowing I wanted to be on a team someday. It’s awesome training with my Stanford group – in the gym it’s like a National team camp, it’s fantastic and so motivating.”

But it takes a certain level of commitment and drive to be successful in managing both. For the women, most train anywhere from 32 to 40 hours a week as an elite, but in college, training is limited to 20 hours a week to accommodate school schedules. During the season, competitions and travel time must be factored in, as well as time for all the extra things like brand deals and appearances. Then of course, factoring in time with friends – and that precious alone time we all need every once in a while. For Jordan Chiles, that has been the key to her success so far.

“I would have to say taking that time to myself has kind of helped me with the management of doing elite and NCAA and making sure that I am doing all the deals that I have gotten,” said Chiles. “So I really kind of brought it to myself like, ‘Look, no matter what happens, make sure you get time to yourself.’ That’s the key thing because mentally you’re not going to be able to handle everything. I just kept being me and just enjoying life and spending time with my friends and being Jordan.”

While the men don’t have nearly as many endorsement deals as some of the women do, the grind and commitment is still the same.

“Balancing school is very difficult and it’s all about time management,” Walker said. “If you’re on top of that and you’re willing to take on the challenge, it’s the best experience you can have as an athlete.”

And that’s why they do it. Both Chiles and Carey have said they planned to do college gymnastics regardless of their newfound celebrity status post-Olympics, but the new NIL rules that went into effect July 2021 sweetened the deal. It’s perhaps one of the biggest reasons we’re seeing more and more gymnasts choosing to do both college and elite, as gymnasts can now take advantage of all the opportunities that arise after their Olympic success without losing their NCAA eligibility.

“I think honestly it’s mostly because of the whole opportunity part of it,” Chiles said of her decision to do elite and college. “Like having that opportunity, why not try it?”

So how are they making it happen? 

With the 20 hour NCAA training limitation, it is not a question of taking more time to train to keep elite skills and upgrades from college routines fresh. It must be placed within the already scheduled hours of practice. Training efficiently and ensuring that college assignments are completed without rushing requires a prioritization of quality over quantity. This all done, of course, with delicate hand of respect, ensuring that her teammates do not feel like they are simply a means to an end.

“I think a lot of the girls understood what my goal was because I did say, ‘Hey guys, I think I want to go back for ’24. And so If you guys do see me training Elite skills, just know, I’m still here for the team. Nothing’s going to change,’” Chiles said.

Assuming that there can be anxiety awaiting a reaction that may be accepting or possibly varying in support, she wanted to be completely honest with her new college family. Their response?

“Oh yeah, we know you,” quoted Chiles. “ ‘You are a beast,’ they said, especially the seniors. They understood 100%. Especially by best friend Sekai (Wright). She was like, ‘Girl, you do you. You are talented, you are gifted, like go have fun!’ “

That handed her the confidence and support that she needed to delve into this two-part competition and training trek to Paris.

For Carey, the switch from college to elite happened quick, only taking five days off after the end of her freshman season before heading back into the gym. “I knew that the elite season would be coming up quick, and I had a lot of work to do to get back,” she said. Getting her skills back was the easy part, it was putting them together in a routine that was challenging.

“I feel like it came together pretty quickly and then I went down a little bit and was like, ‘Oh, doing more is a lot harder.’ So I’ve kind of just been working through that,” Carey said. “But after I got over that and pushed through that, it’s been pretty well.”

With the expectation of a few weeks of training back at home this summer, Carey has done the majority of her elite training at Oregon State, with her dad Brian coming to visit her once a month. Carey, who was accompanied by both her dad and Oregon State coach Tanya Chaplin at the U.S. Championships, is choosing to stay in Oregon because she likes the training facility and the fact that she has her teammates in the gym by her side. This means her dad will continue to visit, ramping up his visit schedule for the remainder of the year until the elite season is over. “We definitely have a system down,” Carey said with a laugh.

Leanne Wong, who was at the April national team camp a week after the NCAA Championships, returned home to Missouri to train at GAGE while Jordan Chiles returned to Texas to train at WCC for the upcoming elite season. Chiles said she plans to return to UCLA in the fall after the World Championships, which works out perfectly as her coaches Cecile and Laurent Landi just so happen to be close with UCLA’s new head coach Janelle McDonald.  

“We worked together at WOGA for five years and we are best friends, so I think it’s going to be an easy transition,” said Cecile Landi. “We’re very similar and have super easy communication. And so we’re going to be able to talk about Jordan and what the plan is going to be for her to compete, to make sure she contributes to UCLA but not overdo it so she can keep doing the elite part that she really wants.”

Training will require the perfect balance of working the elite level skills just enough to maintain consistency but also not pushing too hard when it’s not necessary in order to protect the body to be able to withstand an entire college season.

“We don’t necessarily want her to compete too hard and really try to protect her body and do what she really needs, but not overdo it,” Landi said. “I think last year, she was so excited she was doing the hard tricks. I think now she understands that if she wants to last, she’s going to have to make some changes on that part.”

During the NCAA season, Chiles said most days she trains her college routines on two or three events in the gym and will work her elite routine on the remaining event. Carey said she works her elite skills two or three times a week.

“I would keep up with all of these skills here and there,” Carey said. “I mean, softer landings – I wasn’t doing the routines over and over again.”

Now with a year of college under their belt, Carey, Chiles and Wong’s confidence level appears to be at an all time high. From the relaxed smiles walking around the area, to the confident and fierce presentations under the lights, to the post-routine celebrations — they’re having the time of their lives!

“I have changed my mindset a lot coming into this year for elite,” Carey said after Day 1 of competition. “I want to make it feel more like a college meet. More light, more fun – obviously still serious because it is a bit harder gymnastics than in college. But I would say today was a lot more fun out here than I’ve had previously.”

On and off the floor it’s one big balancing act, but they wouldn’t want it any other way. Thousands of gymnasts before them have dreamed of having the best of both worlds and now they’re living that dream – and inspiring the next generation.

“I just want to be able to show everyone, especially all the athletes here, that we can be light and have fun and cheer each other on… But still do the best gymnastics in the world because we’re supposed to be having fun and loving what we do,” Carey said.

Photos by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

For more:

Shilese Jones Puts Up Career Best Performance En Route To Lead Day 1 

The Athlete Marathon: A Look At The Long Haul

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