Recently, my real life job as a reporter brought me in contact with Olympic sprinter Jayson Jones, fresh off the plane from Beijing. While he didn't bring home a medal, I found his thoughts on running, the past and life in general fascinating.
He takes a very cerebral approach to his sport, especially for someone known to the world as an athlete. What follows is the result of my conversation with him and his coach. It is an interesting portrait of someone who has gotten to the international stage and taken time to reflect on it.
As sports fans get used to the midday television void after the Beijing Olympics, the athletes themselves are in a process of transition. After years of work towards one goal, many athletes spend the post-Olympic afterglow looking back on what could have been.
For Jayson Jones, one of four Olympic athletes from Belize, his vision is fixed on the future. The son of a retired Army sergeant 1st class and a staff member of the Army’s Civilian Senior Leader Management Office, James ran the 200-meters in the Beijing Olympics.
Jones was born in Germany, and like many army-raised children, he lived all over the world, including Chicago, Il., South Korea and several German cities.
This upbringing was a mixed blessing, as it helped him adapt to many situations, which helped him on the track, but it also created a difficult environment to train.
“I had six coaches in eight years. It was hard to establish an athletic foundation. Not one person can say they knew me from when I started to run,” he said.
His coach now is Owen McGregor; he has seen how Jones’ upbringing has affected his performance.
“He has great discipline and respect for authority,” McGregor said. “Sometimes when you work with athletes one on one, they feel like they’re a superstar, that they’re above it. Jayson isn’t like that. He’s very receptive and works very hard towards his goals.”
Upon graduating from high school in Heidelberg, Germany, he enrolled at Florida State, to run and play football as a wide receiver/kick returner.
“When I got there, it was the same year that people like Peter Warrick came to play football,” Jones said.
“The coach flat out told me, ‘We’ve got a lot of receivers in this recruiting class, so you probably won’t see the field for three or four years.’”
With that blunt news, Jones decided to dedicate himself fully to running, a decision he says he might make differently today.
“I probably should have worked even harder, just to prove them wrong, but I decided to focus on the team that wanted me. It did make me work much harder on the track.”
Jones’ parents are from Belize, and he still had family there. He had an uncle that coached cycling in Belize and asked him if he would like to run for them.
“I haven’t been there in a few years, though I was hoping to bring a medal back to them, and get the parade or the key to the city or something,” he said with a laugh.
Jones currently holds the record for a Belizean runner in the 100m (10.24 seconds) and 200m (20.70). Since the Central American Games in 1997, Jones has run for Belize in many international events, including the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Running in Sydney as a 23-year-old, Jones wasn’t able to devote his full focus to the games. In the months leading up to the games, his grandfather and older sister passed away unexpectedly, and the result was a roller-coaster ride of a year.
“It was highs and lows,” he said. “I struggled running that season for Florida State, lost some confidence and I wasn’t fully in shape.”
“[Sydney] had some friendly crowds though. They weren’t as excited about the events as the Chinese were. Every single event in Beijing seemed to be sold out, and even though I wasn’t a Chinese athlete, I was constantly being asked for autographs and photos.”
While competing in Belgium prior to the Athens Olympics in 2004, Jayson pulled his hamstring. Though he still managed to qualify, he didn’t want to participate if he couldn’t give his best.
"[In Beijing] I concentrated too much on trying to qualify to get to the later races. I didn't go 100 percent in my first race, and the result was I didn't even advance. I won't make that mistake again," he said.
While the Beijing games came and went without a medal, Jones is focused on upcoming competitions. After a break from his usual routine, he will start training again in October for the World Track and Field Championships in Berlin.
“I went into Beijing thinking that it would be my last race. But talking to coaches and athletes after the Games, they kept saying, ‘see you in 2012,’” he said. “I figured as long as I’m progressing, there’s no reason to hang it up. I’m 31 years old now, and I haven’t run my last race.”
The Olympic Games in 2012 are his next major goal. While being 31 might seem to be “over the hill” by international athletic standards, Jones feels that his past experiences put him in the prime of his career.
“Age is only a number. I’m in better shape now than I was when I was 20. I wasn’t able to attack the training the way can now,” he said.
“I’m approaching things from a wiser standpoint. I’m also taking better care of my body. I do a lot of preventative training like physiotherapy, a nutritionist and even a psychologist. I call it pre-habilitation, which is better than re rehabilitation after something goes wrong.’
"I was at the world championships in 2007, when Tyson Gay won, and I remember hearing Usain Bolt talk about how he would never be able to beat Gay. Look what happened there. Anything can happen on a given race day."
Besides his athletic achievements, Jones also came out of Florida State with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, which gives him something to fall back on when his sprinting days are over.
“I always tell my friends, I don’t want to be like Al Bundy, always talking about the past,” he said. “I won’t always have my youth, but I’ll always have my degrees, so I have the opportunity to do things later in life that other runners won’t.”
Jones himself acknowledges that one doesn’t win a medal on the day of the race, it comes with every day leading up to the event. McGregor knows the extent of his focus, and sees no reason why Jones can’t compete for a medal in London.
“He’s naturally tough and physically ready to do it all over again,” McGregor said. “It’s a burden he’s facing, but I know he can do anything he puts his mind to.”