Jones sets standard from jump
Lincoln (Pa.) star set 200-meter record in first NCAA meet
Pressure impacts every student-athlete differently, however, imagine being 18 or 19 years old and on the national championship stage.
“I remember being very nervous and exhausted,” Rhondale Jones said of her first national meet her freshman year.“I had already run several rounds of my sprinting events and had just one race left; the 200-meter dash. One of my teammates told me, ‘Hey Dale, if you win this, we win the national championship.’”
So how did Jones respond at the 1999 NCAA Division III National Championship at Berea, Ohio? She ran an NCAA record time of 23.72 seconds, clinching a national title for Lincoln (Pa.). And more than 10 years later, that time still stands as the all-time DIII record. In addition, Jones also won the 100 meters, 100-meter high hurdles, and was on the winning 400-meter relay team.
But Jones’ exploits as a freshman were just a preview of things to come. By the end of her brilliant career, she won a record nine individual NCAA national outdoor titles, also anchored two relay titles and, just for good measure, won five individual NCAA indoor track championships…a grand total of 16 NCAA championships. In 2006, her accomplishments resulted in Jones being honored as Most Outstanding Division III Student-Athlete in track and field during the NCAA’s 25th anniversary celebration of women’s championships.
Jones first love as a youngster was to become a gymnast.
“My mother convinced me it was too expensive and I was too tall,” Jones said. “At eight years old, I was already 5’6”.”
She also drew inspiration from two world-class track stars, Gail Devers and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. “Both women overcame adversity and helped me believe I could do anything if I worked hard and stayed focused.”
Originally, Lincoln was merely going to be a brief stopover before competing in Division I.
“I was offered a full athletic scholarship at a DI program and Lincoln was supposed to be a place where I could take a few core courses, run track and then move on,” Jones said. “But after just one semester at Lincoln, I fell in love with the track program, the coaching staff and my teammates.”
Lincoln’s academic philosophy also appealed to Jones.
“We had a small teacher-to-student ratio, so I was able to receive a lot of one-on-one attention from my professors,” Jones said. “They knew me by my name and were able to meet my academic needs more effectively due to the more personal environment.”
The pressure did not end with Jones’ freshman year. Both she and her teammates now were the team to beat at the 2000 Outdoor Championship in Naperville, Ill., but for Jones, it was all about her senior teammates.
“We wanted them to leave with another national title, Jones said. “One of the seniors was on the 400-meter relay team, but she was not as fast as some others, so we knew it was a risk having her run the third leg, but she deserved it. I was on anchor, got the stick, ran down the other team’s athletes and our seniors graduated as national champions.”
Jones repeated her individual trifecta as well, defending her national championships in the 100, 200 and 100-meter high hurdles.
It was more of the same at the 2001 NCAA Championship, as Jones won her third consecutive individual titles in all three events. But the Lions fell short in their quest for a third title in a row (they finished in third). It just was not the same for Jones.
“I compare it to going to a dance, but you are the only one who can actually do the moves,” Jones said. “It’s a lonely night on the dance floor.”
Jones graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 2003 and quickly found an opportunity in Riverdale, Ga., teaching sixth-grade math, reading and social studies. She now has returned to her hometown in Wilmington, Del., and is an Education Interventionist for fifth-grade students at Stubbs Elementary School. Jones also is an assistant sprint and hurdle coach at Wilmington Charter High School. She was inducted into the Delaware Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2009.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Champion magazine.