Saturday, April 13, 2024

How Gymnast Shilese Jones’ Late Dad Is Inspiring Her Olympic Journey

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Not to put the gold medal before the (vaulting) horse, but should gymnast Shilese Jones find herself wearing a particular piece of shiny jewelry at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, she has a dedication all worked out. 

“It wouldn’t just be for me and my team, but also for my dad,” the 21-year-old exclusively told E! News at NBC Sports’ Road to Paris Bus Tour. Much like his determined and preternaturally talented daughter, Sylvester Jones Jr., who died in 2021 after a prolonged battle with kidney disease “was the one that was in the gym day in and day out,” she continued, “so it definitely would go out to him.” 

He and wife Latrice Bryant were the ones to notice a 4-year-old Shi, as she’s known to friends, “just flipping around the house,” the athlete recounted. “My parents were like, ‘Let’s try to put her in a gym.’ And I actually was horrible at the compulsory levels. I lost everything, wasn’t really paying attention.” 

It wasn’t until she reached level 8 (in which tweens are able to, say, complete acrobatic series and 360-degree turns on a beam and nail a front handspring vault) that Shilese “started winning everything,” she shared. “And they were like, ‘You can make a job out of this. She has the potential to try for the Olympics.’ So I just listened to that and have been going ever since.”

Photo by Tom Weller/picture alliance via Getty Images

Perpetually riding shotgun (or rather, in the driver’s seat, taking her to and from practice even after a long day of dialysis) was her father, who also spearheaded the family’s move from Seattle to Columbus, Ohio to support the uneven bar enthusiast’s Olympic goals. 

“Each competition I go to, it’s not just for me, it’s for him as well,” explained the future University of Florida athlete. “So I’m just thankful to even be in this position to keep going and making it to the top. And being out there on the stage would just be a whole other moment.”

She’s already notched some impressive highs on her road to Paris, helping the U.S. team nab their sixth and seventh consecutive World team title in 2022 and 2023 while collecting individual medals in the all-around and uneven bars finals. 

“We’re all in this together,” she shared of competing alongside Olympic vets like Jordan Chiles and Simone Biles, who invited Shilese along for her 2021 Gold Over America tour.

“I know it comes down to the competition floor,” she said when asked about her keys to victory, “but just believing in your teammates and trusting them that they’re going to have your back and just having fun, really. Soaking it all in and taking it one day at a time.”

Though, of course, the two-time U.S. National Champion on uneven bars has thought about what it might be like to soar through the air in France with the greatest of ease. 

“Going out there and really being on the Olympic stage of Paris would probably be the best,” Shilese acknowledged. “I’ve worked my whole career to get where I’m at today, so just all the hard work, probably a lot of tears, emotions, yeah, just soaking it all in.”

And remembering everything and everyone who got her there. 

The 2024 Summer Olympics kick off on July 24 on NBC.

—Reporting by Alex Cramer

(E! and NBC Sports are both part of the NBCUniversal family.)

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