Four races. That’s all Dani Jones had the chance to run in her senior year in indoor track at Colorado, before the coronavirus stopped her, and everyone else. Four races. Know how impressive they were? The national coaches’ organization for track and field named her female athlete of the year.
Four races. Oh, what might have been. That’s a question athletes face coast to coast this spring, each dealing with the void in his or her own way. Dani Jones heads for the door each morning.
The coronavirus has cancelled so many things, but here's one it hasn’t — a young woman’s will to run. Jones is still putting in 75 miles a week, happy that Boulder has lots of open spaces, so social distancing is not an issue. An odd sign of our times: Jones’ tan lines on her face from wearing a mask. But the daily workout is therapy in running shoes.
“That’s something I’m grateful for every day,” she was saying. “Even though I don’t have anything to train for right now, I still get to train and it’s what I love to do. For student athletes to go from going to class every day and having practice and having a full schedule to just sitting at home...I know it’s been hard for me and I’m sure it’s been hard for other people. I can’t imagine not being able to train.”
On the byways of Boulder, she can forget what she has lost, forget how the dreams of a pro career in track have been stalled by the stoppage of all sports. Shoe companies aren’t offering contracts, meets aren’t being held. Nothing to do but wait...and hope...and run.
After an All-American career at Colorado that included four individual national championships in track and cross-country and one team title, this was to be Jones’ glorious last bow. It lasted only 15 days. But what 15 days they were. On Jan. 31, she anchored Colorado’s distance medley relay that produced the second fastest time ever for the Buffaloes. The next day, she set a school record in the 800, its former owner the famed Mary Decker.The mark had stood for 42 years. The next week, she ran the sixth fastest mile in NCAA women’s history on a 200-meter track. On Valentine’s Day, she added the NCAA’s ninth best 5000 meter time ever.
But suddenly, there were no more races.
“It was hard as a senior to have your last couple of seasons (indoor and outdoor track) taken away,” she said. “I explained it as just not having proper closure to five years of hard work.
“It’ll be hard to know that I could have left more of a mark.”
Every senior in America has a bittersweet memory of when and how it came to an end. For Jones, that includes dinner in New Mexico.
It was the second week of March, with the NCAA indoor championships set for Albuquerque, and Jones scheduled for the demanding double of the 800 and mile. To even try such a thing meant intensive training, but it'd be worth it, right? By the time the team got there, news of mass cancellations began coming from around the country. There went the NBA, the NCAA basketball tournament, everything.
“It didn’t start falling apart until we get to Albuquerque,” she said. “We realized we weren’t getting our indoor season back. I don’t want to say it was bad news after bad news, but it certainly felt that way. Obviously, all those things were justified, with what’s happening right now, but it was just shocking as an athlete. Stuff like that just doesn’t happen. We went from going to the track and doing our warmups and starting to get excited, to trying to find the first flight out of there.”
Thursday night should have meant final preparations for her first race the next day. A plate of pasta. “We went to dinner and I remember being outside of the restaurant. We were at an Italian restaurant, where we had our reservation. We were supposed to be carb loading.” But she didn’t even want to go inside. Just being there seemed to only make more shocking what had just vanished.
“Mark (coach Wetmore) made me come inside and eat with the team. Everyone was pretty quiet. The circumstance, it was justified, but that doesn’t make the disappointment go away. I think I picked at some Bolognese. Eventually I had a cupcake, which was a little easier going down.”
The team soon returned to Boulder, and Jones has been running ever since. The passing days on the calendar, with reminders of where she should have been, tell their melancholy stories. “Like, my race was today, and I’m sitting at home in Boulder," she said. "Or today was graduation, or today was the Pac-12 championship. You try not to think of it that way, but it gets brought up. May and June would have been two really big months for our team.”
She recently completed her degree, but graduation will be a virtual ceremony. So it goes nearly everywhere for the star-crossed class of 2020. “It’s kind of heartbreaking to have to do graduation online, so I just keep telling myself, I’m going to celebrate it later when I can do it with people I love. Hopefully that’s sooner, rather than later.”
Jones has a double major in psychology and speech, language and hearing sciences, with the intent of one day being a pediatric audiologist. “I find a lot of value in having some balance,” she said. “I’ve loved running, but when I leave the sport, I’m interested in doing something completely different.” But she has more running to do first, after deciding to go pro rather than seek a sixth year of eligibility at Colorado. She understands that's a risk, but wanted to give it a try.
“Obviously, shoe companies aren’t in a great position to sign athletes. I’m hopeful if I just focus on training and focus on being a better runner, the other stuff will come. I just have to be patient and understanding of everyone’s situation.”
There are also the Olympic trials to aim for next year. Well, maybe next year. Maybe has become a big part of athletes' lives. What always seemed so certain — practice, competition, the busy life of chasing a dream — suddenly have not seemed so certain. Perhaps that has been the harshest adjustment of all. Jones often thinks back to something Wetmore told her.
“He said, `I think you’re a little heartbroken and not just by one event but how things have unraveled.’ But another thing he told me is a quote, not to be afraid and to trust in the athlete and the person that I am. Courage is not the absence of fear, but grace under fire. That’s what I’m trying to live by right now, and I think that’s what a lot of people are trying to live by.”