Akela Jones was devastated, and it showed.
All year, the Kansas State track and field athlete trained to defend her NCAA championship in the heptathlon. After winning the event with a near-record 6,371 points in 2015, she finished third last month with 6,063 points.
The disappointment hit her like a truck, destroying her desire to fight until the end of her final college meet. The moment she realized defeat was unavoidable, midway through the 800-meter run, the last event of the heptathlon, she stopped sprinting and started walking.
“It was just one of those moments where I felt like I needed to take a moment for myself,” Jones said. “Obviously, it wasn’t the right time or the right place, but after walking I realized how much I love the sport. In those few seconds I started to run again and continued running. That little moment of me walking really helped me understand why I love this sport so much.
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“I don’t ever want to stop or give up like that again.”
Jones can redeem herself next month when she heads to Rio to compete for Barbados in her first Olympics. She is set to compete in the heptathlon and the high jump.
Odds are she can shake her recent disappointment by then. If not, she will try and use it to her advantage.
“I am using it now to propel myself,” Jones said. “I have more focus in practice. I have found out what I need to do in practice to never let it happen again. I am glad it happened the way it happened.”
Jones hasn’t experienced much disappointment in her track and field career. The 6-foot-2 track star has already won a pair of national championships, in the high jump indoors and the heptathlon outdoors. She has been named an All-American and she has won several Big 12 awards.
She accomplished so much so fast that her coach thinks she has created an unsustainable set of expectations for herself, which led to her negative emotions at the NCAA track championships.
“There isn’t anyone that I think really appreciates what she has done given what her background is,” K-State track and field coach Cliff Rovelto said. “That was the fifth heptathlon of her life and most of the girls there did five heptathlons before they entered college, and they have done for our five every year at their universities.”
Jones spent two years at K-State, beginning her college track career at Oklahoma Baptist, an NAIA school.
“She is just so, so inexperienced,” Rovelto said. “The circumstances got to be a little overwhelming.”
Rovelto thinks that led to unnecessary pressing when Jones got off to a slow start in her most recent heptathlon. She expected to hold an insurmountable lead heading into the final events. Instead, she played catch-up.
“The expectation of her is beyond what is really fair,” Rovelto said. “The snowball started rolling, and we just hadn’t done enough of some of the skill things to help her.”
Still, she seems ready for the Olympics.
It’s common for athletes to push themselves after they experience disappointment and come back stronger. Jones hopes that is the case for her.
Motivation won’t be an issue. Growing up on an island nation known for sprinters, she is proud to represent her country in multiple events that involve jumping, throwing and endurance.
“This is the first time I have represented my country on such a big stage,” Jones said. “I think it is going to be a phenomenal experience. I don’t want to go out there for the experience, though. I want to let people know I am the experience. I wasn’t out there just to be there. I want to win a medal and go for gold.”
If she does her best, anything seems within reach.
“There is nobody better than Akela Jones from a physical standpoint,” Rovelto said. “There just isn’t. There is no one in the world better than her. She is the best in the world, but she has got to do the work and gain the experience and then go out and prove it.
“There are a lot of things that have to happen for everyone to accept that she is the best in the world, but if she has a personal best in the Olympics she will be in medal competition. That is definitely in her wheelhouse.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett