Technically, Texas freshman Jonathan Jones isn’t a millennial — at 20 years old, he’s a certified member of Gen Z — but head track and field coach Edrick Floreal’s age-based analysis of his 400-meter dash protégé still applies.
“He completely submits to the plan,” Floreal said. “I tell him to do something and he just does it. When you got an athlete like that, who responds like that, runs for the coach, runs for the team, runs for the family … that’s the perfect athlete. This kid is a little different from this generation of millennials. He responds to what he’s told to do.”
During one particularly memorable race this summer, that insatiable need to please actually worked to Jones’ detriment.
In July, the freshman All-American somewhat improbably found himself in Monaco. After running what was then the ninth-fastest 400-meter time in the world at the NCAA championships (44.64), Jones was invited to compete against professionals, first at the Prefontaine Classic in California and then at the Herculis EBS in Monaco, the crown jewel of the IAAF Diamond League circuit. Besides the Olympic or World Championships final, these premier races are the grandest stage an athlete can reach in track and field.
Overseas, racing on a foreign track named for a deceased monarch (Stade Louis II), he focused on the familiar. Jones knows how to run a 400.
He exploded from his starting blocks, zeroing in on the curve of the track as the sounds of the stadium faded away — including the sound of a second gunshot, signaling a false start for the athletes to return to the start line.
But Jones kept running. The two athletes in the lanes next to him did, too, only dropping out after 100 and 300 meters, respectively. Track officials yelled at him to stop in French — Monaco’s official language — and Christian Taylor, the U.S. Olympic triple jump champion, even tried to chase him from the infield. But Jones made it all the way around the track, crossing the line in what was reported to be a hand-timed 44.6, essentially tying his PR.
Then he realized it didn’t count.
“I was just surprised and confused,” Jones said of the immediate aftermath.
Track officials tried to make him run again in the official race, but after a personal record effort, he was done for the day (although he claims he could have run “46, or maybe 47” if he had tried).
“The guy on my outside ran 300 meters with me, so I assumed the race was on,” he said, “and the guy on my inside ran the first 100, so I heard his footsteps and I assumed I just pulled away from him really fast.”
Floreal wasn’t in the stadium to see it; he was at the warmup track helping his hurdlers prepare for their events. He caught a glimpse of Jones on a Jumbotron, but the screen quickly cut away to the other athletes walking back to their starting positions.
“I thought he stopped because the camera didn’t follow him, but the crowd was going absolutely bananas,” Floreal said. “The louder they got, he thought they were cheering for him and kept going.
“He said, ‘I didn’t want you to chew me out for stopping and get blown out, so I’ll keep going.’
“I thought, ‘Wow, that didn’t really go well.’”
Despite the embarrassment of doing that on live television in front of a packed stadium, Jones looks fondly upon the race, calling it the highlight of his season — even ranking it ahead of his runner-up finish at the Big 12s, his fourth-place finish at NCAAs or even, after the debacle, a runner-up finish and personal best of 44.63 at the London Diamond League meeting.
“It might sound strange, but Monaco, running by myself … (was) the biggest highlight of the year,” he said. “I was mentally active the entire race, going through my race plan the whole time and executing exactly how I envisioned it.”
It’s been a year of learning for Jones, who started as a cross country and 1500/3K runner when he first joined the track team as a 14-year-old volleyball player in Barbados. At 16, he quit volleyball to pursue track full-time in hopes of earning a college scholarship. By 17, he was the No. 2-ranked youth athlete in the world for the 800, clocking 1:48.16. A year later, he ran 46.92 in the 400.
College coaches in America started to take notice, including then-New Orleans coach Benjamin Dalton, who took an assistant job at Texas during Jones’ final year of high school. They forged a strong connection and after visiting Austin for the first time, Jones canceled the rest of his official visits. Dalton — now an assistant at Baylor — was ultimately let go in 2018 along with the rest of former head coach Mario Sategna’s UT staff, but Jones was already sold on the Longhorns.
Like many college athletes, Jones was now faced with competing for a brand new coach whom he’d never met for the next four or so years.
“Jonathan was kind of green,” Floreal recalled. “He was just a guy who was recruited by somebody else and was supposed to be a 400 runner. Some crazy guy shows up and says, ‘You’re gonna be a quarter-miler.’”
What made Floreal so sure that Jones’ strength lay in the 400? This is a kid who was ranked No. 2 in the world for under-18 athletes in the 800, with a background in distance running. The vast majority of track and field athletes move up in distance when they enter college, not down.
“I looked at some of his film and stats and it was clear that his ability in the 400 had never really been tapped,” Floreal said. “His first 200 and his last 200 in this race did not match, there was a couple seconds’ difference. He was going out extremely slow and still running 46 seconds … we have girls going out that slow, and I thought, it’s simple math. If we can even improve him by a second (in the first 200), keep him a strong finisher, that would put him at 44, which will make him very competitive at any race, and especially in the NCAA.”
Jones thought Floreal’s predictions of running under 45 seconds in the spring were “crazy” (for perspective, 44.9 qualifies for the Olympic Games).
But Coach Flo, as he is known to his athletes, was right.
To get faster while preventing injury, Jones had to get bigger and stronger. He hit the weight room — hard — for the first time in his life, and met with UT nutritionists who put him on a high-calorie plan that had him drinking breakfast smoothies every morning and protein shakes at night. He says he gained 20 pounds during his first month on campus and maintained that weight the rest of the season— although he feels a little leaner while school’s out and he has to fend for himself for food.
Floreal still sees a lot of room for improvement after what he calls a B-plus season (“I’m a hard grader”) that saw Jones break Barbados’ 35-year-old national record in the outdoor 400, compete against professionals and qualify for the IAAF world championships. Jones won’t actually compete at worlds due to their late start date at the end of September in Qatar, as the event might put back his preparations for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, after which he will most likely turn pro.
“I’m not stuck to the idea of trying to hang on to a kid to put points on the board (at conference),” Floreal said. “You gotta be a little less selfish. His future is pretty bright. My job is to get the athlete (to be) the very best they can, so I’m gonna get him ready for the Olympics.”