August 21, 2007
Coaches and students alike will tell you that it takes time for even the best high school athletes to adjust to the level of competition found in a Division I conference. Imagine making that jump after just three years of high school, at the age of 17--and, just for kicks, winning Big 12 Freshman of the Year while you're at it.
Nichole Jones, a distance runner from Spring, Texas, did just that this spring. She took five correspondence courses over the summer to graduate high school early, then started at Baylor last fall and set four school records en route to two all-America honors in her first season in the Bears' track program.
"I had to do a lot over the summer," she says. "I literally read every textbook from front to back. I've never been so disciplined as I was that summer; I probably read 10 hours a day."
Jones' early graduation and enrollment at Baylor weren't part of a long-term plan; instead, she says, it was "a spontaneous choice." Jones was just starting to think about her college choices when she met Baylor head coach Todd Harbour at a regional meet in November of her junior year.
"All he did was give my mom and I a handshake. After he shook my hand, I said I wanted to look into Baylor," she says. "I gave him a phone call a month later, and he told me all about (Baylor). I didn't know that it was a Christian university, and that was a green light for me. After that, I came for a visit and fell in love with it."
Jones originally committed to Baylor for the 2007-08 school year, after graduating with the rest of her class. That changed late in the spring of her junior year.
"She started calling all the time, then she wanted to commit," says Harbour, who initially tried to persuade Jones to wait and not commit too early. "Then she wanted to come early, and there was no talking her out of it. ... She was determined that that's what she wanted to do. She'd been challenged all she could be challenged academically, and she wanted the next challenge."
Within the realm of athletics, it's debatable whether even the Big 12 is enough of a test for Jones. In February, she became the youngest athlete in the conference's history to win an indoor Big 12 title, a month shy of her 18th birthday; in May, she also became the youngest ever to win a Big 12 outdoor title. Add in her third-place finish in the 1,500 meters at the USA Junior Championships this past summer, and one might wonder what there is left for Jones to accomplish.
"For Nichole, we're focusing on her being the very best that she can be right now," says Harbour, who points out that distance runners generally peak in their mid to late 20s. "We're taking it real slow and thinking long term. ... She's still discovering the talents that she has."
Off the track, Jones dabbles in creative challenges such as poetry and art. One of her paintings adorns a wall in Harbour's office, and the coach compared a poem she wrote about a friend's salvation to the sort of thing you read in the Bible.
"She's real smart, real articulate, but very quiet," he says. "She always smiles; there's just a countenance about her that radiates joy. She loves people, but she's a fierce competitor. You don't want to line up against her on the track."
An exercise physiology major, Jones hopes to continue running professionally after graduation. If that doesn't work out, then she plans to give coaching a try.
"I got a taste of it this summer when I volunteered with a summer track program in Waco," she says. "I was elated just to motivate the kids and see their faces light up. ... It's also a great way to be a mentor to some kids."
Thankfully for the Baylor track program, that future is a long way off yet for this 18-year-old sophomore sensation.