Tragedy into Triumph: Jones uses swimming to push through barriers

PORTSMOUTH — In sports, we all have that motivating factor that keeps us going.

For Courtney Jones, her efforts as a standout swimmer have been aided in large part by the memory of her late father.

The Ashland, Ky. native, who will be one of at least 11 female swimmers to partake in meets at the Warsaw Aquatic Center this coming fall and winter, will be one of many key building blocks for the Shawnee State swimming program as it begins outside competition for the first time in school history in the 2020-21 academic year.

“After swimming all four years of high school, I was truly devastated to be losing the sport that I loved so much,” Jones said. “Even if I wasn’t the fastest or the strongest, I had found something that gave me great joy. Coming into college, I knew that Shawnee State was looking into forming a swimming team. The first day of practice was unreal. Getting to be on a team where we get to help create the norm is amazing. We are all helping navigate this new team. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to continue my college years as a swimmer, and am beyond blessed that I get to help start up a program that hopefully many in the future will be able to enjoy.”

Having never swam in a competitive manner prior to her attending Ashland High School during her freshman year (2015-16), Jones gave high school swimming a shot as simply a way to stay active and make new friends.

She’d never guess that in the process of starting the sport, she’d find a hobby that would help her learn so much along the way — especially early on as Jones adjusted to the rigors of preparation.

“In high school, I started swimming not knowing that I would fall in love with it,” Jones said. “During the first day of practice, I got out of the pool and thought that my legs were going to fall off. My first meet wasn’t too good, and I didn’t quite know what I was good at. However, after discovering that I was able to swim backstroke pretty well, I never gave up, even after the practices where my entire body would be sore. I took advantage of that and focused on that as my stroke. I was swimming everyday before school at 5:30 a.m. I continued on that path my freshman year, and competitions went amazing.”

With three years ahead to continue to make gains as a swimming talent, Jones was looking forward to solely focusing on making additional progress in the water.

“I started off feeling normal and practicing and competing,” Jones said. “I was always one of the first in the water and one of the last out of the water. I never missed a practice unless I had to.”

Life, however, took an unfortunate turn for Jones.

Her father, Kenny, became ill and after an extended period struggling through, passed away.

To make matters even more difficult, Jones’ father passed away two days before New Year’s.

The funeral was held the day after the calendar turned to 2017.

Struggling to find an outlet to the untimely passing of such an important life figure, Jones used her newfound passion as the outlet she needed.

Instead of withdrawing from the water, Jones attacked the sport of swimming with a strong vigor.

Less than two months after her father’s passing, Jones qualified for the 2017 KHSAA Swimming and Diving Championships in Louisville for the first time in her high school career as a member of Ashland’s 200-yard medley relay team.

She — along with teammates Kenzie Pennington, Mary Thornburg and Ashley Hudson — collected a 39th-place finish by posting a time of 2:10.65 in the event.

“Swimming was my form of release in a time where I was keeping everything bottled up,” Jones said. “Going to competitions and improving my time was such an amazing feeling. I craved that feeling, so working hard in practice was the only way in order to keep myself dropping time. Competitions were always fun with my team. There was never a dull moment.”

Considering the circumstances that Jones went through between the first and second semester, the accomplishment was amazing — but Jones’ career wasn’t done hitting new bright spots.

Under the tutelage of Ashland swimming coach Billy Cox, Jones contributed to two sixth-place finishes in the KHSAA Ninth Region Swimming and Diving Championships via the 200-yard medley and the 200-yard freestyle relay in her junior season — with her, Hudson, Thornburg and Sarah Shytle posting a 1:59.37 in freestyle and a 2:11.16 in medley competition.

She rounded out her career with appearances in four different events as a senior in Ninth Region competition.

“Billy was an amazing coach,” Jones said. “He was always teaching us about technique. His entire motto was swim smarter, not harder. During some practices, we would swim a couple hundred meters but the amount that we learned about physics, the dynamics of water, why it’s faster to swim underwater when we were the fastest during our swim, and what muscles we were working with each different movement of the stroke was huge. He was also always willing to help anyone improve. Even during my first day of practice, when it would’ve ben so easy to overlook me and just write me off as the new girl, he would take time to share corrections with everyone in order to help us all grow. He was always there for us inside and outside the pool, and I am forever grateful for the person that he has helped me become. He was probably one of my greatest influences during high school.”

With her high school career at its conclusion, Jones focused on finding a home to continue her academic career.

Shawnee State proved to be that home to Jones, thanks to the friendly student-to-teacher ratio, the personable environment, and the litany of activities available on campus.

“I didn’t consider Shawnee State as an option until my friend said she was going to go there, which heightened my interest. I decided to apply and just go take a tour,” Jones said. “I fell in love with the community aspect and all the different activities. I loved the smaller teacher-to-student ratio and I loved that I wouldn’t be just another face in a crowd. I loved the fact that I would be able to interact with my professor during classes.”

Upon reading about the open spots on Gerald Cadogan’s roster, Smith jumped at the chance to also continue her athletic career.

Needless to say, she was in awe of Cadogan’s accomplishments — as a student-athlete, a coach and a mentor.

“I had never met (Gerald) Cadogan before the first day of practice,” Jones said. “I had looked him up though, and seeing all of his past accomplishments, I was a little bit intimidated. However, even at the very first practice, he was always very welcoming and proud to be the coach. He has a great sense of humor while also being able to get serious when he needs to. He is an amazing coach, and everyone on the team warmed up to him very quickly. We are very excited for him to lead the journey into discovering new places for this team to go. He has done a great job of establishing himself, and I am beyond happy that he will be with us throughout our journey as swimmers.”

Through Cadogan’s leadership, Jones has been pleased with the program’s growth as a whole, even though their time as a unit has been cut short due to the coronavirus.

She’s also done her part academically — maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA up to this point — and is well on her way to a contributing role when athletic activities resume.

“Even though this season was only practice, we have all grown closer,” Jones said. “We are able to joke around with each other and also share advice while trying to navigate through our college lives. Our team started out very small, which allowed for us to make deeper connections and bond. The other swimmers really do care about each other. Even during this time, we are keeping in contact and helping each other stay active. As the team is growing with new members and expanding, I’m sure that it’s going to become more fun and more loving.”

As Jones moves forward, her main goal — along with following her path in the biomedical field — is to develop the same bonds that she found at Ashland while swimming.

“As this program gets up on its feet and starts kicking, I want to be able to form a bond with my team more than anything,” Jones said. “I want to be able to swim with them and for each of us to become the best version of ourselves through the sport that we all love. I want to become faster and strong while dropping time as much as possible and be the best athlete that I can.”

When Jones does hit the water for the first time at SSU in a competitive manner, she’ll certainly have a figure watching over as she launches off the starting block.

“My Dad is looking down on me and smiling,” Jones said. “I know that he would’ve loved to be able to go to one of my meets and sit in the stands and cheer me on. Even though he’s not physically there with his voice booming through the stands as I step up to the block, I know he is with me and is rooting for me no matter where I go.”

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