USA Greco

The “Wildman” Heads West: Jones With ‘Fresh Start’ at Utah RTC

Sammy Jones, 2018 US Greco-Roman Watchlist
Sammy Jones -- Photo: Richard Immel

The decision couldn’t have been easy. Sammy Jones (60 kg, NYAC, 5PM #5) loved Marquette. He still loves Marquette. Throughout his time as a student at Northern Michigan University, which included his comeuppance on the Senior Greco circuit, he had grown attached to the sights, sounds, and yes, even the climate. And when Jones, 26, graduated a few years back, he barely entertained thoughts about leaving. The Upper Peninsula had become home, and the training situation obviously wasn’t too bad, either. He wanted to stay put, so he did. It all made sense.

Until a conversation less than two months ago.

“I was at camp in Nebraska,” Jones recalled. “Taylor (LaMont) and I were warming up before practice and he was asking how training in Michigan was going. I was explaining how at that time it was still really locked down and we were not able to get on the mat. So he goes, ‘Why don’t you just move out to Utah and train with me?’ That was the start of it all.”

Just like that.

“We were starting to drill and Sammy was talking about what he was doing, and I was like, Hey, just come out here. Maybe we can get you some money from the RTC,” LaMont remembered casually. “It was just a spur of the moment thing and Sammy called his wife that night and she said she wanted to check it out.”

Jones’ wife, Natalie, is actually credited as much as LaMont for getting the wheels spinning. “She was kind of the driving force,” Jones confirmed before emphasizing, “No, not ‘kind of’, she was totally the driving force.” Five-and-a-half months pregnant with their first child, the entire operation hinged on her wishes. Jones seemed to expect a semblance of pause. What he got back was instant enthusiasm. “I wasn’t taking it very seriously but when I talked to her that evening, she was like, ‘Yeah, let’s pursue this. I’m down for an adventure.'”

Upon planting the seed, LaMont went about watering it by mentioning the particulars. The Utah Valley RTC had received recent donations substantial enough to make the idea of expanding the roster plausible — a key development. Another was LaMont himself.

A Junior World bronze medalist in 2016 within a string of seven combined age-group World Team appearances — plus a near-miss for All-American honors at the ’18 NCAA Division I National Championships — LaMont is one of the American program’s best lightweight prospects overall in addition to owning a spot on the current US National Team. But at home in Utah, specifically when it comes to Greco, the pickings were slim. He has Dylan Gregerson, the ultra-tough ’19 U23 Trials runner-up who just so happened to get clipped by Jones a week prior in the ’19 Senior Trials National Team bout. The pair enjoy a deep connection and depend on each other pertaining to matters on and off the mat. They are understandably close and have been training partners for years (and years, and years and years). That’s nice. It is also not enough for either of them, at least not anymore.

Which is why LaMont thought of Jones when he learned injecting someone else into the mix was a possibility.

“I’m one of the main guys at the RTC and I talked to Coach Greg (Williams) about options for Greco partners,” began LaMont. “Originally, they were looking at freestyle to fit the college more but we wanted someone else for us. Dylan and I have been training together since we were kids. He’s an excellent wrestler but we know each so well to where we both know what moves we’re going to do to each other.”

One more item LaMont wanted to address was cohesion. Likability is not a prerequisite among training partners. Perhaps it helps; but competitive veracity, the whole “iron sharpening iron” ethos, reliability…they all matter more to aspiring Olympic Champions. Jones checked those boxes for LaMont. They were not the clinching factors, however. The manner in which Jones treats others also played a role. LaMont was weary of inviting circumstances that failed to mesh with the RTC’s general mission, as well as his own. He knew and admired Jones’ character enough to know that he could trust the type of person who would be entering the fold.

“Sammy beats me up, and there aren’t many guys in the country who can do that to me. If I want to jump levels, I need someone like that to train with,” LaMont explained. “But Sammy is a great person. He is a few years older than me, he’s mature, he has life figured out. I didn’t want someone else to come in here who might not fit in with what we’re doing, and Sammy is a great guy. I really like him a lot.”

Like Dominoes

The process gathered steam shortly after Nebraska camp broke and Jones returned to Marquette. Jones has used the phrase “everything just fell into place” when describing what came next and there is not even a tinge of melodrama involved.

First, Williams offered to fly Jones and his wife out to Orem so they could assess the training environment while also doing a little detective work on potential real estate concerns. In a fortuitous twist, New York Athletic Club coach Herb House soon called Jones with the news that the next “Summer Series” camp would not only be held at Utah Valley, but during the very same week of the visit.

Finally, there is the house Jones and his wife had targeted. It had been under contract with another renter, momentarily resulting in a slight hiccup of consternation. But then the agreement suddenly collapsed, and the Joneses swooped right in and gobbled it up.

The only missing piece, if there was one, had to do with Jones’ employment. In Marquette, he was a sort of do-it-all handyman with longtime teammate Austin Morrow. They toiled together — largely outdoors and through unforgiving winters — scrapping and piling debris one day, performing household fixes the next. Jones never likes to complain; come to think of it, neither does Morrow. Still, the gig isn’t easy on the body.

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Finding a job in Utah was not a huge question mark relative to the move westward, though nonetheless a priority with which to reckon. Jones would have raised his hand for more of the same if that was the best he could do. But it wasn’t. Just like nearly every tilted domino which has accompanied this transition, even his new work protocol wound up landing on the winning number.

“I’m not doing manual labor and actually using my accounting degree, which is insane,” he said, a short laugh punctuating the declaration. “I work for a construction company. I am a ‘project engineer’, that’s my title. It’s pretty cool. I work under both the commercial and residential side of things. I take their estimates and create or communicate the working budgets with customers.”

Fresh Start Kind of Thing

Fast is the keyword. Expedient. Jones went from sheltering in place and expecting to remain in Marquette until after the Olympic cycle, to, in mere weeks’ time, packing up and starting over 1,600 miles west of a city he had once earnestly adopted as his own. He is now starting to breathe out a little bit. Last week represented his first taste of the new “go to work and work out” routine that will bookend his days for the foreseeable future.

Such is his comfort zone. Jones, despite all the years honing his skills inside of the Superior Dome, is not, nor ever was, adverse to change. He likes knowing he can adapt to different situations, wrestling-infused or otherwise. A quick lesson on his past is all the evidence one needs. Then again, the past, distant and recent, are responsible for the meaningful relationships which have made the journey what it is.

He can rattle off the names in eye-blinking succession if you ask. All of the teammates, all of the training partners, all of the Rob Hermann stories, and rollercoaster-like climbs and descents witnessed on or around NMU’s campus that have become embedded in his heart’s memory. Compartmentalizing the dynamics simplifies the scope. Morrow sticks out for this reason, more than the dozens of other friendships, especially since they blossomed side-by-side for what has been the better part of a decade.

“We’re great friends, we have been in Marquette from the very beginning,” Jones said. “He is officially the last ‘OG’ from the 2013 Rob Hermann freshmen crew that he brought in. We were battling it out to see who would stay the longest. We worked together, so we had a good amount of time to talk about it and share memories. The night before we left, he came over and hung out on the front porch and shared stories. I’m definitely missing that dude.”

Makes you wonder a little. A stream of What ifs? runs through the mind. Jones was at home and at peace in the Upper Peninsula, seemingly content with the training structure, the coffee shops in town, and the many friends inside and outside of the sport. He had latched onto NMU head coach Andy Bisek’s coaching style, as well. So, What if COVID never happened? What if Northern had never shut down? What if Jones had declined the opportunity to train in Nebraska? Would LaMont have even thought to extend an invite?

The hypotheticals are enough to cause brain-spin. Jones doesn’t even bother to ruminate on questions that fail to require an answer. Partly because he doesn’t have the time, partly because he keeps it simple by trusting God and seeing where that leads him.

Look around. It seems to be working.

Jones is a major contender for the 2020ne US Olympic Team, his wife is more than halfway through a pregnancy, and he just moved across the country. This is utter chaos to most people. Yet — if you were to take Jones’ pulse, the smart money says his resting heart rate isn’t ticking above the usual. Tough to explain, other than to say that this is a man who knows how to embrace a good opportunity when he sees one.

“I loved Marquette and we had a great community there,” informed Jones. “This wasn’t something that I was actively looking for as far as training — at that time. But this popped up and I thought, This looks like a great chance to further my career. It’s a fresh start kind of thing.

“Obviously, I am going to have Taylor and Dylan as my training partners and they are top guys at my weight. If you want to be the best you have to train with guys who are pushing you, so this is a good spot to be.”

Certainly appears that way.

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