Orphan, Advocate, Inspiration, Olympian: The Story of Jordan Windle

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Orphan, Advocate, Inspiration, Olympian: The Story of Jordan Windle

Team USA’s newest diver Jordan Windle landed in Tokyo last Sunday, along with seven other first-time Olympians and two fellow University of Texas Longhorns among the 11-strong group. He will compete in the 10-meter men’s platform event during the Olympic Games.

The 22-year-old qualified for the Olympics with a second-place finish in the 10-meter event at the U.S. Olympic Trials on Jun. 12. He clinched the spot with a graceful inward 3½ somersault at the end of which he seemed suspended above the surface of the water at the last millisecond. The dive drew perfect 10s from five of the seven judges, and NBC commentators knew that he had made the team. He followed that up with a forward 4½ somersault and reverse 3½ somersault that further secured his position.

If you haven’t heard of Windle yet, you will. He is the first diver of Cambodian descent from any country to qualify for the Olympics. And during the extended social reckoning and the rise of AAPI-targeted hate crimes in the U.S., representation by the Cambodian orphan turned all-American athlete is significant to a lot of people.

The mainstream American press parade has only just begun around him, but Windle and his story have been out there since, at age 10, he expressed a desire to become an Olympic diver. Asian and Southeast Asian newspapers, Voice of America radio, USA Diving, and the University of Texas Longhorn Network have long since championed the athlete, who alternates between introspective laser focus and charismatic grins.

Born in Sihanoukville, Cambodia and orphaned as an infant when his parents died of sickness, Windle was adopted in 2000 by a single gay man, raised in Florida and then Indiana while being bullied for being different. He became a diving protégé by age 9, co-author with his father of a children’s book called “An Orphan No More: The True Story of a Boy” by 2011 and was the youngest Olympic Trials qualifier at age 12 ahead of the 2012 London Games. He then was the fourth-place finisher at the 2016 Rio Trials, and became a record-setting NCAA champ thereafter for the University of Texas.

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Photo Courtesy: University of Texas Athletics

Until recently, a humble personal website described Windle’s journey, which began when Jerry Windle left the U.S. Navy after serving as an officer of distinction during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era. Jerry wanted to start a family but faced discrimination by adoption agencies because he was a single gay man. One day, he was waiting for a healthcare client and flipping through a magazine. In it was a story about a single father who had adopted a child from Cambodia. Whereas many Americans still need to be told that Cambodia is the same country where Angkor Wat is, or where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt met their son Maddox Chivan, Jerry felt a connection to Cambodia after learning some of its history while in the Navy.

He knew about how the ancient seat of royal ethnic civilizations had sustained immense collateral damage by being a thruway for North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War. He was aware of the hair-raising genocide that claimed the lives of an estimated 2 million people when the Khmer Rouge party enacted a purge of the Cham ethnic group from 1975 to 1978. And he knew that the developing nation was still a tough place for an orphan who needed a family as much as Jerry wanted one.

When Jerry arrived in Cambodia at an orphanage in the Prey Veng province, the 18-month-old Jordan had a picture of his future father hanging around his neck. Wearing shoes several sizes too large, he trundled toward Jerry. When Jerry held him, the toddler reached out and squeezed his face, sealing an unbreakable bond. Jordan headed with Jerry to America, where people of Cambodian ethnicity are a micro-minority now comprising 0.1% of the U.S. population, concentrated mostly in California.

At age 7, Jordan said that he wanted to try diving when he and his father drove by the Fort Lauderdale Aquatics Swimming Camp one day. At the camp, Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame diving coach Tim O’Brien, son of Hall of Famer Ron O’Brien, noticed the child’s physiology and intuitive style right away, and urged Jerry to groom his son as a bona fide diver. Four-time Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis soon became a mentor to Jordan, who in turn became dubbed “The Little Louganis” and won his first major championship at 9 years old. At Texas with Coach Matt Scoggin, Jordan became the first Big-12 diver ever to win four consecutive championships from the platform.

Jordan’s middle name Pisey (pronounced “pee-sigh” means “beloved” in Khmer.

Apropos to this, Jerry calls his son the very air that he breathes. Jordan returns the sentiment full throttle, consistently remarking in press appearances that he draws his deepest strength from his father (who also happens to have an acrobatic background in gymnastics and cheerleading) and just wants to make him proud.

When Jordan’s third bid for the Olympics was a charm, both men shed tears of shared joy and fulfillment. Throughout the competition, Jerry had held up a handmade cardboard sign that read: “Diving 4 USA & Cambodia #onehumanrace.”

Despite mounting adoration for the father and son, their struggle for ordinary acceptance goes on. As recently as 2019, Jerry resigned from a city councilman position in his current location of Morrisville, N.C. as an act of resistance and hoping to provoke action after receiving homophobic slurs in the workplace.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Most remarkable isn’t just to what heights Jordan has prevailed on athletic prowess and mental positivity, but how much love he has preserved for his roots and how extensively he has given back at home and abroad.

An outspoken LGBTQ ally since day one, he participated in a campaign called It Gets Better, speaking out in 2011 about being a different race from his father and having two fathers after Jerry married Andrés Rodriguez. He also went around to schools reading from the storybook he had written with his father, using a rooster and a brown duckling to illustrate themes of acceptance and convey the authenticity of chosen family.

In 2016, Jordan made his first return to Cambodia since his adoption, visiting Senior Minister Sun Chanthol and other officials, who gifted him a silver plate and placed a krama over his neck. The krama, a hand woven cotton garment, has great cultural significance that can roughly be approximated to what the tartan means to the Scottish.

Jordan also provided a diving exhibition for orphans at the Phnom Penh National Olympic Stadium against the surreal backdrop of modernity constructed by the nation in 1964. Video footage shows him ascending alternately stained and sun-bleached steps and then black ladder bars up to the three-story high platform before plunging downwards into the aquamarine water to show the kids down on the deck that they, too, can do anything. Hem Kiry, Cambodian Olympic swimmer (2000 & 2004) and secretary general of the Khmer Amateur Swimming Federation, called Jordan a hope and inspiration to the new generation.

Jordan is currently an athlete ambassador for Kids Play International, an organization striving to provide athletic equity and Olympics training opportunities to youth in the genocide-impacted countries of Cambodia and Rwanda.

Earlier this year, Jordan announced that he will begin a fifth season at Texas this fall, taking up the NCAA on its offer to extend eligibility by one year for athletes who were in school when the coronavirus did a job on the 2020-2021 season. He is the highest profile swimmer or diver to take advantage of this ruling, and will continue studying Physical Culture and Sport after returning home from Tokyo.

After his Olympic and NCAA glory days, Jordan is eager to become a diving coach who also runs diving programs for kids in Cambodia. In a sport that too often begs the question of sustainability, Jordan is one athlete who has a long, bright road beyond his sparkling college and Olympics career. And he has already lit the way for many others.

14 comments

  1. avatar
    Beverly Stewart

    I read a story about Jordan before he went to the Olympics. Sometimes something catches you and you become curious about things. I was following Jordan and hope all his dreams are met. A wonderful story.

    • avatar
      Quan Do

      Wonderful story! Love it!

  2. avatar
    Jay

    What an inspirational story! Thank you for publishing it! Much love to Jordan and his supportive family!

    • avatar
      Felix c. Libarios

      A wonderful and awesome story…God Bless Jordan🙏🙏🙏❤

  3. avatar
    Jessica Fisch

    Love is everything,yes?

    • avatar
      Robinson Rene

      Wonderful to see how love makes life wonderful, giving back to his homeland is wonderful. Great story 🙏🙏

  4. avatar
    Sarah Ang

    Thank you Jerry! You are a God send. Bless you.

  5. avatar
    Anonymous

    What a wonderful story. Love it

  6. avatar
    Amanda Esquivel

    What an amazing young man. Best of luck to him at the olympics and life.

  7. avatar
    Anonymous

    AWESOMENESS. 👍👌✌✊👊

  8. avatar
    Felma

    Praying for your success and your life is Amazing story. God bless you and your family.❤️

  9. avatar
    Andrew Hunter

    Your story has brought tears to my eyes – Jordan Windle, you are a shining star! I wish you all the very best. You deserve great success in the Olympics and your Life!

  10. avatar
    Carol

    Such a great accomplishment and giving back to his roots is so admirable!

  11. avatar
    Sharon

    I too read your story and watched you in the Olympics
    Blessings to your Dad for adopting you!! And for you fulfilling his dream of being a parent!! 😉🇨🇦

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