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TAMPA, Fla. — Shilese Jones could have moved on a year ago. There's a gymnastics scholarship waiting for her at the University of Florida whenever she wants it.
Only Jones couldn't walk away from the chance to make a run at the Olympics.
Not when there was so much unfinished business left, business she promised her father Sylvester she'd try to take care of before he passed away last December following a lengthy bout with kidney disease.
Jones moved from Ohio back home to the Seattle area in January to train and be closer to her family.
Encouragement from friends such as 2005 world champion Chellsie Memmel buoyed her. The support of her family strengthened her. Over the past eight months, the pieces began falling into place.
On Friday night, with her mother and sister in the stands and a steely smile that rarely wavered, the composed and confident 20-year-old showed a glimpse of what still could be.
Fueled by a brilliant set on uneven bars to start the competition, Jones grabbed the lead at the U.S. Championships in the kind of star-making performance that for so long seemed just out of arm's reach.
Not anymore. Her all-around total of 57.200 gave Jones a healthy lead over Konnor McClain heading into Sunday's finals and validated her decision to stick with it even as she deals with an unthinkable loss.
"I've been dreaming about it, and I knew it was possible," Jones said. "Anything is possible."
Limited in training recently by a turf toe injury, Jones hardly seemed intimidated by the stage or the stakes in the annual national showcase.
She wasn't the only one. With Olympic champion Sunisa Lee — who is waiting another year before returning to the elite level after her triumph in Japan last summer — watching from a nearby table and with star Simone Biles on sabbatical, the meet offered proof the Americans should still be in good hands at the world championships this fall in Liverpool, England.
McClain, a 17-year-old who believed she was "the most garbage gymnast ever" as she struggled in 2021, flashed her newfound confidence culled from throwing herself into her routines in the Dallas gym run by Valeri Liukin, father of 2008 Olympic champion Nastia Liukin. McClain's 14.800 on beam — the highest in the world on the event in 2022 — propelled her to a 56.400.
"I feel like I definitely could have a good night and I could still fix some things on bars," she said. "It was my first time doing that routine, so I can't really be too hard on myself."
Like Jones, McClain has been trying to find a way to navigate her way through tragedy. She lost her father and her grandmother to COVID-19 within a week of each other last winter. She recently forced herself to back off social media, tired of what she'd find in her mentions.
"I feel like I really just wanted to focus on championships and getting here and (Twitter) was really just stressing me out more and adding stress to me," McClain said.
She hardly seemed bothered while finishing ahead of a pair of Olympians attempting to pull off the rare combination of competing at the elite and collegiate levels simultaneously.
Jordan Chiles, a silver medalist in Tokyo last summer entering her sophomore year at UCLA is in third in her first elite competition in a year. The fans shrieked when she was introduced, and she repaid the support with a performance that hardly appeared rusty. If anything, finding herself looking up on the scoreboard to someone other than Biles and Lee offered proof the Americans still have one of the deepest programs.
"After Shi's 14.8 on bars I was like 'Oh man, I've really got to step it up, this is crazy,'" Chiles said. "But you know, (Jones and McClain) have been doing this for a long time too. I give them kudos because they are dedicated, they are talented and honestly, they can do anything."
Kayla DiCello is fourth heading into Sunday's finals with Jade Carey, a gold medalist on floor in Japan, fifth. Leanne Wong, a silver medalist at the 2021 world championships, appeared to land awkwardly on her beam dismount and scratched her final two events on floor exercise and vault.
The meet is the first national championship with the organization's new leadership team led by strategic lead Alicia Sacramone Quinn and Memmel, the technical lead. In front of a sizable crowd with a chance to step out of the considerable shadow cast by Biles and Lee, the top six Americans hardly looked nervous.
Jones especially. At last.
"She came out here and she rocked it," Quinn said. "And I think that has to be a big confidence boost for her personally to be able to, you know, kind of overcome that adversity (of an injured toe) and put on such a great performance that will have her, I think, really feeling proud of herself and like ready for day two."