Putter Jon Jones Thinking Olympic Team

Buffalo alum Jon Jones is confident he can overcome his inability to train this spring. (KEVIN MORRIS)

THE PUTTER who last year placed 4th at the USATF Champs and U.S.-Ranked No. 5—his highest rating in 5 straight Rankings appearances—Jon Jones is knocking on the door and targeting an Olympic Team berth next year. The ’15 NCAA champ for Buffalo, Jones has come a long way over the past decade to get here. Make that a looong way.

But here he is. Last year Jones, now 29, threw past the 21m/69ft barriers with a 69-½ (21.04) put in June. From there he kept gunning. He ended up spinning out the five best throws of his career in ’19, with a 70-11¾ (21.63) two weeks before USATF the longest.

“Man, I so thought this year, coming off of last year, was going to be an even better year,” says Jones, whose training base since ’16 has been the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center near San Diego where he is coached by John Dagata. “I was building into something really good towards the end of last season, and it kind of sucked that I wasn’t able to make the World team ’cause we didn’t have that [Wild Card] slot. I was pretty primed and ready around that time.

“My basically last throw of the season at the USA versus Europe meet was like a 22.20 [72-10] foul. I stepped out. It felt really good and I looked out, I watched it and I fell out of the front of the circle. So it wasn’t too crazy of a foul, like I blew out of the circle really bad or anything like that.”

That Jones is poised on the cusp of being a 71-footer and is talking about a foul above 72-0 is near miraculous when considered in light of his prep career at Portville High in western New York. “I was not very good,” says the ’10 grad. “I didn’t start throwing until my junior year of high school. We didn’t have a throws coach. My first year, my junior year, I ended up making the state qualifier, and I think I placed 6th for small schools or 5th. And then my senior year, I threw—56-10 [17.32] I think was my furthest.

“Luckily my football coach who was the track coach at the time, his little brother was a throws coach in Buffalo, which was like an hour and a half away from where I’m from, and he knew Jim Garnham, the throws coach at UB. He told Jim that he knew somebody that had high potential that he thought needed [a knowledgable coach] to see him basically. And that was me. So Garnham actually came out to one of my meets and saw me and I threw like crap cause I knew he was coming. But he said he saw exactly what he needed.”

Jones’s mother Haley Holcomb has recounted the day of her son’s meeting with Garnham as miserably rainy and recalls the coach talking to Jones for more than 45 minutes without an umbrella. Garnham saw the power and speed of an elite thrower but could not bring Jones to Buffalo right away.

“My grades coming out of high school were not the best,” Jones says. “I didn’t really think I was going to a big Division I or anything like that. So I ended up having to go to Division III Buffalo State, which is right across the road basically from UB, and then getting my grades up for a year, which I ended up doing, and transferring over to UB.” Focusing on upgrading his grades, Jones “didn’t throw much” while at the Div. III school and recalls, “I think my furthest was like 52-feet [c16m]” with the international ball.

“Another cool thing actually about that whole situation was the throws coach,” Jones says. “Faith Thompson was an All-American for [Garnham] at UB a little while earlier. So it was kinda like he told me to go there because he knew I would be in good hands training wise and I was going to be close to him so he could keep an eye on me and make sure I’m doing what I need to be doing.”

It wasn’t until 2013 that Jones, then a redshirt soph, debuted in Div. I competition. He found success immediately, winning MAC titles indoors and out and improving to 64‑3¼ (19.59) as he took the undercover conference crown. He recalls his NCAA Indoor appearance that year as an inflection point. “I didn’t do very good at that meet [57-0/17.37 for 13th], but I ended up kind of gaining that confidence and knowing that I had the potential of doing bigger and better things in track & field. So that led me down the path of wanting to continue to throw professionally.”

At the NCAA that June Jones placed 4th with an outdoor PR. “But also I think the biggest point in my career was 2014 at the USA Nationals in Sacramento where they had the shot put at the Capitol,” Jones says. “I ended up throwing a huge PR, 20.75 [68-1] and got 4th among the best in the U.S. at that time. So that really kind of got me going on that path as well.”

His performance in Sacramento was all the more remarkable since Jones was treated for a tendinopathy (degeneration of a tendon) in his right knee later that year. In ’15, his injury having responded well to platelet-rich plasma therapy, Jones claimed the NCAA crown with a then-PR 68-2¼ (20.78) and improved on that to place 5th at USATF (68-7¾/20.92).

The knee was still healing, however. “I wasn’t able to lift lower body until probably 2018.” Just months into that, though, squatting with Ryan Crouser in Chula Vista, Jones recalls, “I blew out my back pretty bad. I herniated my L3, L4, L5 and L5-S1 and extruded the L5-S1 disc pretty bad… it was the most pain I’ve ever been in.” On top of this Jones later determined he had contracted Giardia, the gastrointestinal parasite.

Jones—who stands 6-0/320 (1.83/145) assesses 2019 as “the first year since 2014 that I had been actually healthy.”

This winter—same story as for everyone—along came COVID-19. “Since about March I haven’t really been able to train too much,” Jones admits. “They closed the Training Center down so I’ve just been trying to do whatever I can outside of the Training Center.” He has had no access to a weightroom or throwing circle and Jones has been living with his girlfriend. He hopes he can soon start using javelin thrower Cyrus Hostetler’s home gym and thinks that perhaps in late July or August he may regain access to the Training Center after a series of medical checks for the coronavirus and possible associated conditions.

“So this year is definitely off the table for me for competing,” he says, “if there are any meets. Which is fine. I’m thinking of coming back and getting back into training earlier than I would usually start up.”

Maybe it’s the self-belief Jim Garnham began to build in Jones a decade ago that defines him to this day. “He always told me literally from Day 1 that I got there that I had what it takes talentwise to be a national champion. I just had to follow his lead and his coaching. Any time I did have a bad meet, he would always just tell me to look past it and look back on it and see what needed to be fixed, what could be fixed, and move on. Never really dwell on a bad meet. He did a really good job of instilling that confidence in me.”

Perhaps because of his background of coming from nowhere as a thrower to reach the elite echelon, Jones trusts he can overcome his spring ’20 inability to train. “I’m not too worried,” he says. “I think I can get myself in pretty good shape, come next summer for the Olympics, for sure. I’ll be getting started a little bit earlier. I know what it feels like to throw far. I know what I need to do to get there, and I know what I need to do to get past [22m]. So it’s just a matter of things opening back up and things gaining some kind of similarity to normal, to be able to get into the type of training shape that I need. But I still think I’m one of the top shot putters in the U.S. and I still think I can have a really good shot of being on that Olympic Team next summer.”