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Jon Jones: One big throw away from Rio

Six years later, Haley Holcomb can still picture it. She’s sitting in her jeep on a miserable spring day, gazing through the windshield as her son stands silently in the rain, listening to Jim Garnham Sr. acknowledge the talent he believes is inside him.

“Oh, my God,” Holcomb said. “It was so bad. I can remember Garnham in the rain, no umbrella, talking to my son for 45 minutes-plus, telling him he could do this.”

That was not the reaction Jonathan Jones expected when he met Garnham, the veteran University at Buffalo throws coach, for the first time that day. Jones, a senior at Portville High, had traveled to Clarence to compete as an individual in the shot put and discus in a high school meet.

Jones had entered on the advice of Cheektowaga coach Matt Swetland, a Portville native who had worked with Jon and felt he was as pure a natural talent as he’d seen. Swetland, whose team competed at Clarence that day, told Garnham he really needed to see the kid for himself.

It did not go well for Jones. He fouled in both the discus and the shot put and looked like some raw novice. His performance was, as his mother recalled, every bit as miserable as the weather.

“From the time I got there, I was nervous,” Jones said. “He (Garnham) was the dark shadow in the back, leaning up against the fence. I didn’t want him to say, ‘Yeah, he’s not what I’m looking for.’ Naturally, it ended up being one of my worst competitions of the year.”

But the man in the shadows wasn’t there to see results, but the promise of great things. That’s what Garnham was telling Jones as his mother waited in the jeep that day. “I see potential. You can be a Division I athlete.”

That’s all Jones needed to hear. He played four sports at Portville, and had an offer to play football at Alfred University. But Jon wanted to be a shot putter. It ran in the family, for one thing. His uncle Jack (Haley’s younger brother), held the shot put record at Portville until Jon broke it.

UB track coach, James Granham poses for a portrait at University at Buffalo Stadium in Amherst, NY on Tuesday,May 10, 2016. (James P. McCoy/ Buffalo News)

Holcomb remembers sitting together at their home in Portville later in Jon’s senior year, planning his future. “I want to throw, Mom,” Jon said. “It’s my passion.” He wanted to throw for Garnham at UB, whatever it took.

“It was a beautiful day on our front porch. We’re in our rockers, rocking back and forth,” Holcomb said, “and Jonathan and I are laughing about him going to the Olympics.”

You had to be off your rocker to believe such a thing at the time, but they allowed themselves to dream big. No one is laughing now. Friday in Eugene, Ore., Jones will be competing for a spot on the U.S. team at the Olympic Trials.

It was a long and difficult journey. By his own admission, Jones was an indifferent student as a teenager. He didn’t have the grades to get into UB out of high school. The compliance officer at UB told Garnham that Jones would never be able to make it academically.

Holcomb suggested junior college, but Garnham felt Jones would make swifter progress in the classroom and on the track if he went to Buffalo State. Faith Thompson, one of Garnham’s former throwers, was coaching there and could keep after Jones about his academics.

Jones wound up on academic probation his first semester at Buff State. Garnham got a phone call from Thompson, who said Jones wasn’t listening to her about school. He wasn’t putting in the work.

Garnham called Jones and said, ‘Look, you’re putting my reputation on the line here if you don’t make it.’ He called Holcomb and Swetland and said Jones would lose his big opportunity if he didn’t make a dramatic turnaround in his grades.

“Whatever they said to him, it worked,” Garnham said. “I guess it was maturation, or knowing that someone had taken an interest in him.”

“Truth be told, Garnham saw him as an uncoached talent,” Holcomb said. “He saw Jonathan as very raw. He could teach this kid how to throw the right way from the beginning. He had no bad habits, he could teach him right away, because Jonathan didn’t know anything.”

Jones pulled it together at Buff State and was transferred to UB midway through the 2011-12 school year. Maybe he simply grew up. But belief can be a powerful thing. Holcomb said Garnham’s faith made a huge difference in Jon, an only child whose mother has raised him alone since he was 2.

There were some trying circumstances along the way. Holcomb is on permanent disability and often struggled to make ends meet. Jon didn’t have many luxuries, but he had a loving family, including uncles Chris and Jack, and the support of the small, nurturing Portville community.

But Holcomb considers it an unimagined blessing for Garnham to have walked into her son’s life when he did.

“Garnham was even better than a father figure,” Holcomb said. “He believed in him. When Jonathan decided to pursue a collegiate career in shot put, nobody believed in him. Nobody. Garnham was the only one, and myself. I didn’t know if Jonathan could or he couldn’t. I told him, ‘You’ve got a shot at it. You can do it. If you fail, you fail.’”

Former UB student and olympic hopeful Jon Jones, poses for a portrait at University at Buffalo Stadium in Amherst, NY on Tuesday,May 10, 2016. (James P. McCoy/ Buffalo News)

(James P. McCoy/ Buffalo News)

Jones justified that belief, making steady strides as a shot putter. Midway through his second year at Buff State, he transferred to UB and spent the spring semester as a redshirt, working on his studies. Garnham pulled Jones aside that year and told him he could be a national champion. Jones looked at his coach and said, “What?”

“I told him, ‘You’ve got all the tools,’” Garnham said. “’You have to do it in the classroom and the weight room and out here on the track. You do that and you can be national champion, no question. You’ve got everything you need to do. You’ve got the horsepower.’ And he started believing it.”

Jones was still raw, but he had the natural ability to be a great thrower. Garnham said Jones has unusual lower-body quickness, which helps him explode into his throws. Jones is 6-foot, 280 pounds, but he was one of the faster athletes in high school, part of Portville’s 4x100 relay.

In his first year at UB, Jones won the MAC indoor and outdoor titles. He finished fourth in the NCAA outdoors. As a junior, he had what he considers his big transition, where his education as a thrower really took hold and he became a much faster and stronger athlete.

He again won both MAC shot put titles and earned all-American status. Then, in June of 2014, he finished a surprising fourth in the U.S. outdoor championships with a personal best throw of 20.75 meters, finishing as the top collegian in the field.

“That’s when it really hit me that I could be among the best in the world and the nation,” Jones said. “John Godina, an established thrower who has been to the Olympics, was announcing at the meet, I remember after I hit the big throw, he was like, ‘Wow, you would think these young guys would be nervous going against the professionals. But this kid is shining bright.’
“It was really cool to hear that.”

Holding his own against some of the top throwers in the nation, including pros and former Olympians, gave Jones a jolt of confidence. He justified it as a senior, winning the NCAA shot put title and giving UB its first ever Division I track champion.

Garnham’s words had rung true. Jones was a national champion. He had taken on throwers from the country’s biggest college athletic factories and proved that an underdog from Buffalo really did belong.

Shot-putter Jon Jones, formerly a UB standout, works at Dicks Sporting Goods at the Boulevard Mall while training to make the U.S. Olympic team as part of a program Ricks has for aspiring athletes, Tuesday, June 7, 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Jon Jones is surrounded by reminders of his long-term goal while he works  at Dicks Sporting Goods at the Boulevard Mall. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

His mom was home alone, following the NCAA meet via the internet. There was no video, just periodic updates. When she saw that Jon had won, she began screaming with joy. Then she bawled her eyes out.

“It wasn’t just the good feelings, but the bad ones, too,” she said. “For Jonathan, it was validation of everything he and I sacrificed. Because we were a team. I did everything I could. I lost my utilities a couple times. I gave up my vehicle. I went without food. It really was a sacrifice.”

Jones called her a few minutes later. She was crying into the phone and he was laughing, saying ‘Mom, can you hear me? Can you understand what I’m saying?’”

Now they can rock on the front porch and talk about the Olympics for real. After graduating from UB last year, Jones decided to stay home and train for Rio with Garnham, rather than move elsewhere to train full-time as many of the top track and field athletes do. He finished fifth in the world indoors in March, though most of the top Americans didn’t compete.

Jones works out at UB and continues to rehab a balky knee that has bothered him since early in his college career. He works part-time at Dick’s Sporting Goods, which provides paid sponsorships to about 200 American Olympic hopefuls, who receive no government support in the U.S. He will be in the familiar role of underdog at the Trials, which begin on Friday in Eugene, Oregon. Jones is ranked 16th in the world, but there are half a dozen Americans ranked ahead of him, and all have thrown at least half a meter farther than his personal best of 20.92 meters.

“I guarantee I won’t see my name in the mix to make the Olympic team,” Jones said. “But it only makes me hungrier. I’ve always been a firm believer in trying to prove people wrong. That’s what I’ve been doing from Day One. I think I can do it. Garnham believes I can.”

Veteran shot putter Reese Hoffa understands what Jones has in front of him. The two have become close in recent years and Jones considers Hoffa, 38, his idol. They bear a physical resemblance. Hoffa had a rough childhood − he was put up for adoption at 4 and didn’t find his birth family until he was an adult − and was a late bloomer as a thrower.

Hoffa has made the last three U.S. Olympics teams after failing to quality at his first Trials in 2000. He won his first Olympic medal, a bronze, four years ago in London.

“It’s very, very difficult,” Hoffa said, reflecting on his first Trials. “It’s the special athletes that make the transition really fast. Time will tell if Jon is that kind of athlete, but he’s definitely headed in the right direction.

“Because becoming a great thrower was not easy for Jon, he also understands you have to work,” Hoffa said. “That’s all I’ve seen out of him. He just works his butt off to be the best thrower he can be. I don’t get the sense he feels entitled in the sport.”

Shot-putter Jon Jones, formerly a UB standout, works at Dicks Sporting Goods at the Boulevard Mall while training to make the U.S. Olympic team as part of a program Ricks has for aspiring athletes, Tuesday, June 7, 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The message is clear.  (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Jones never imagined getting this far when he took up the shot. He figures he has nothing to lose at the Trials. Hoffa says there always seems to be one thrower who surprises and grabs one of the three Olympic berths.

The way Garnham sees it, Jones is still a relative babe in the event. He has more upside than his rivals. Who knows when he’ll realize it? Maybe sooner than anyone expects.
“I think I have just as much chance as anyone going into the meet to make top three,” Jones said. “I’ve been mixing it up with these guys for the past three years now, so I know what to expect and what has to be done to make that team.”

Holcomb has done her research. She’s read the stats and knows what Jon will be up against in Oregon. It’s amazing how far he’s come in such a short time. Regardless of what happens at the Trials, she’s convinced he’ll be an Olympian before he’s done.

Jon thinks he has only begun to unleash his vast potential. It’s no longer a laughing matter, but a parent’s ultimate dream − to see a child carry the weight of higher expectations, and to find belief in himself.

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