Tokyo Olympics: Jordan Windle, Yul Moldauer journey from orphans to Olympians

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Jordan Windle competes in the men's 10m platform final during 2021 US Olympic Trials.
Jordan Windle competes in the men's 10m platform final during 2021 US Olympic Trials. (PHOTO: Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Reporting from Tokyo

TOKYO — They were orphans from Asia, adopted and raised in the United States. Now at the Tokyo Olympics, diver Jordan Windle and gymnast Yul Moldauer are showing how they have overcome their tough origins to succeed at the highest level of sports.

Windle, 22, was born in the city of Sihanoukville in Cambodia in 1998. At the age of 1, he was abandoned and placed in the Women and Children's Vocational Center at Phnom Penh. The nannies in the orphanage named him Pisey, which translates to "little darling" in English.

At 18 months old, he was adopted by Jerry Windle, a gay man living in Florida. Under his adopted dad's care, Jordan began his transformation from a sickly young kid to an athletic teenager. 

It all started when Jerry enrolled Jordan in the Fort Lauderdale Aquatics Fun Camp when he was seven years old. At the camp, he was noticed by diving coach Tim O'Brien, son of Dr Ron O'Brien, who had coached the great Olympic diving gold medallist, Greg Louganis.

O'Brien told Jerry that if he enrolled Jordan into a diving programme, he would one day be a national champion and potentially an Olympian. And so began Jordan's diving career, as he trained under former national champion Evan Linette and diving coach Dave Burgering.

Blossomed into 'Little Louganis'

Two years later, Jordan won his first junior national title, and has been referred to as "Little Louganis" ever since. He has since progressed from strength to strength – becoming a seven-time US senior national champion and six-time US junior national diving champion. 

He subsequently enrolled at the University of Texas, and became the 2019 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion in the men's 10m platform event, and 2021 NCAA champion in the men's 1m springboard event. He also holds the NCAA Division 1 records for both the 3m springboard and the 10m platform competitions, and is the only diver to win Diver of the Year four years in a row in the Big 12 Conference. 

In 2012, Jordan became the youngest diver to qualify for the US Olympic diving trials, but finally made it to the Olympics this year. When he takes to the men's individual 10m platform competition on 6 August, his journey from an orphan in Cambodia to an Olympian in Tokyo would be complete.

Yet he did not forget his roots, nor the kindness of his adopted dad Jerry. In 2011, the father and son co-authored an illustrated children's book, "An Orphan No More:The True Story of a Boy: Chapter One", with the foreword written by none other than Louganis himself.

Five years ago, Jordan also returned to Cambodia for the first time, and performed dives for the kids there, hoping to inspire them to follow in his footsteps.

"Without my father's love and support, I would not be standing here," he had said. 

"I went through a lot of pain and obstacles. It was a long journey, but in the end it was all successful. As long as there is a positive attitude and a perennial smile, anything can happen."

The United States' Yul Moldauer competes in the pommel horse event of the artistic gymnastics men's team final during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
The United States' Yul Moldauer competes in the pommel horse event of the artistic gymnastics men's team final during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. (PHOTO: Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images)

Not deterred by complications from premature birth 

Like Jordan Windle, 24-year-old Moldauer was an orphan at the age of one in the South Korean capital of Seoul, abandoned by his chemically-dependent biological mother. He was adopted by Peter and Orsa Moldauer, who renamed him from Kyung-tae to Yul after the late actor Yul Brynner, and moved to reside in Colorado.

Because he had a premature birth, Yul had a host of health problems when young and doctors even told his adopted parents that Yul might not be able to take care of himself in his adulthood. 

Yet, that did not deter his adopted parents from sending him to a local gym for a free tryout at age seven, in hope of making him healthier. It worked wonders, as he blossomed into a fine young gymnast under the tutelage of the Artemev family of former Belarusian national gymnasts (Vladimir, Irina and Alexander).

In the next few years, he started winning state and regional meets, and eventually won a place on the US junior national team. He was a member of the gymnastics team at the University of Oklahoma where he graduated in May 2020 with a degree in communications.

In 2016, Yul reached the pinnacle of his collegiate gymnastics career when he won the NCAA men's all-around title. In 2018, he earned the Male Athlete of the Year honour from USA Gymnastics, and a year later, he was presented with the Nissen Emery Award for being NCAA's top male gymnast. In four years of college life, he won 10 golds, six silvers and four bronzes – the most medals won by a gymnast in NCAA history.

Earlier in June, he was a prominent face at the US Olympic trials, as he earned his ticket to Tokyo, where he was part of the US team that finished fifth in the men's final.

"I'm a very lucky person," Yul admitted. "I've often thought about what would happen if I wasn't adopted, or if I didn't practise gymnastics. What would happen to my life?" 

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