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Not giving up



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Little 500 bike team Sigma Nu captain Jeff Jones. Matailong Du Buy Photos



He rode his 2008 Little 500 model Schwinn to class one day in early February.

It was just a simple ride across campus. For any experienced cyclist, it would’ve been nothing special. But for Jones, it was everything.

Only seven weeks after surgery for a hernia had wretched his abdomen, he was more than halfway to a full recovery.

It meant no more time in the hospital. It meant he was back to doing what he loved. It meant he was that much closer to racing in the Little 500.

But his journey was far from over. The surgery kept him off the bike for almost two months, and he needed to resume his training.

He needed his wound from the surgery to heal, and he needed to lead his team to a qualifying time that placed Sigma Nu’s bike team among the top 33.

He had come too far for anything short of success.

As a sophomore in high school, Jones began cycling when he started mountain biking through trails outside of Connersville, Ind.

After he joined Sigma Nu’s bike team as a freshman in the spring 2012, his mission was clear: He wanted to race in the Little 500.

In his mother’s hospital room, he told her again and again, “I’m going to make you proud.”

He saw racing in the Little 500 as a chance to keep that promise.

***

Cycling is a drug for Jones. He’s hooked on the endorphins released during challenging rides.

To him, there’s nothing more fulfilling than a three-hour ride to test his endurance.

“Especially when you get done after that long ride, you just feel so great about yourself,” he said. “I can’t get over the fact of just being on the bike, being in the saddle, just there all the time.”

Jones is in his third year on the Sigma Nu bike team. He has participated in every Little 500 event — the fall series, spring series and Fast Fridays — except for the race itself.

He was supposed to ride in the race as a sophomore, when one of his teammates had a pending trial with the University.

However, the trial was postponed, making Jones just another fan instead of a rider on race day.

After Sigma Nu’s four seniors placed seventh last April, they graduated.

In a span of 16 months, he progressed from a rookie who had to draft off of his more experienced teammates to even finish 20-mile rides to the only rider left on Sigma Nu’s team.

Jones was forced to be a jack-of-all-trades: he was his team’s captain, best rider, recruiter and coach.

Not only did he have to convince at least three more riders to even field a team, he then had to coach and lead them.

Ever since last summer when he was handed the reins to the bike team, Jones had been completely focused on a top-10, maybe a top-five, finish in the Little 500.

Then his mom called him from the hospital.

***

Rita Jones was fighting leukemia when she fell and hit her head Oct. 23, 2013.

She called Jones and his twin sister, Julie, from the hospital, telling them not to worry because her doctors said she would be all right.

But she was not all right.

Jones said his mother had suffered a subdural hematoma, a traumatic brain injury that caused bleeding in her brain.

Though she had undergone chemotherapy to defeat her leukemia, the disease had reduced the number of platelets in her blood, leaving doctors helpless to stop her brain’s bleeding.

Jones was doing homework in Sigma Nu’s formal lounge, four or five hours after Rita called him, when he got a call from his aunt. She said he and Julie needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible.

He said he drove as fast as he could, but by the time he made it to her hospital room, Rita had already spoken her final words to him.

She was unconscious and doctors were giving her morphine to ease the pain.

“You can’t go in for brain surgery with that because obviously, you know, you cut someone open and they have the low blood cell count, they’re just going to bleed to death,” he said.

Doctors continued to give Rita morphine.

Jones, Julie and their family waited at her bedside. The doctors didn’t tell Jones how bad Rita’s injury was, so he was hoping for the best.

But as time passed, he began to realize she wouldn’t recover.
Rita died the morning of Oct. 24.

Jones sat on her bed, he said, holding her until that moment came.

Julie described Jones and their mother as being two peas in a pod. While she was more prone to arguing with their mother, she said he always got along with her perfectly.

“It was surreal,” Jones said. “I can’t describe the pain of the situation.”

***

Living in Bloomington with thousands of other students, the clutter of a small city and countless buildings, Jones said he can get cloudy-headed and tense. After his mother died, he needed a sense of normalcy. He got on his bike.

“Anytime I’m stressed, that’s my paradise,” he said.

Jones took only a week off school because his mother pushed him to be successful, he said, and he wasn’t going to prolong his college career so he could spend a few more weeks grieving.

“I was going to do the best of my ability to get back to school or the real life and succeed and make her happy,” he said.

In the fall, Jones’ goal for Sigma Nu’s bike team was to build up everyone’s base mileage.

In Jones’ eyes, Bloomington is a cycling hub.

In his three years at IU, he has discovered numerous routes he loves. But one route to Lake Lemon is special to him.

On the back side of the water there is a two-mile stretch of flat road that quickly morphs into a huge climb, a challenge Jones cherished. 

“It’s just one of those rides you feel great about when you’re done,” he said.

Jones led his team through 30- and 40-mile rides, like those to Lake Lemon, four or five times per week to develop his team’s endurance.

The unfortunate irony about his love of the lake was that the hernia was rooted in an abdominal strain he suffered while tubing on a lake in high school.

Between Jones’ high-interval circuit training and his 175-mile weeks on his bike, the strain could no longer endure his exercise regimen. He said the hernia felt as if his abdomen snapped.

“It just felt like there was a knife right there in my groin,” Jones said.

***

When doctors cut him open, they found a direct hernia. His intestines had punctured his abdominal wall.

They pushed his intestines back and sutured a thin mesh patch to the wall to reinforce the weak area where the hernia was.

The sutures the doctors used to sew the mesh patch were designed to disappear. Jones hoped they’d dissolve and go away, ending the pain.

After the surgery, Jones said his doctor told him he would be able to ride in this year’s Little 500.

A full recovery was supposed to take only four to six weeks.

So Jones returned to the gym four weeks after his doctor approved of light lifting. But he began to feel worse.

“Spring break came around, and I couldn’t walk,” Jones said.

He gave himself an ultimatum: If he could go on Sigma Nu’s spring break cycling trip and ride 300 miles that week, then he would ride in the Little 500.

But the pain worsened. One day he couldn’t walk at all. Then he lied on the couch for five days.

While his teammates prepared for intense training, Jones was immobilized, gripped with pain.

“The day before spring break was the day I decided I wasn’t going to ride,” he said. Thirty-one days after his first post-surgery ride in February, Jones realized he wouldn’t be riding in this year’s Little 500.

Julie said unlike their mother’s death, which she said motivated Jones, the hernia had crushed his spirit.

He was supposed to be the captain of Sigma Nu’s bike team. The team’s heart and soul. Its leader.

Then he was out of the picture.

All Jones wanted to do was ride, he said, but he had to look at the long-term affects of his hernia and surgery on his overall health.

“To have that ripped from you is pretty tragic,” Jones said.

Ultimately, he thought about how he needed to get better physically, and not just so he could race in the Little 500.

There was still another chance to ride as a senior. But he’s stuck with his body for the rest of his life.

There are no second chances when it comes to permanently injuring his
abdomen.

After seeing the stress he was putting himself through physically following the surgery, he said, he decided he needed to let himself heal.

***

April 26 will mark the second consecutive year that Jones will watch the men’s Little 500, when he had planned on racing.

But unlike last year, he won’t be in the stands. He’ll be one step closer to the action, as Sigma Nu’s coach.

Despite being barely able to walk, Jones has gone to track practices all spring. His riders need his guidance.

“The guys don’t really know what they’re doing on exchanges and all that stuff,” he said.

Though Jones has never raced in the Little 500, he’s a student of the sport. He has learned the intricacies of pack riding, breakaways and exchanges.

When Jones couldn’t walk — he relied on an IU disabled services bus to transport him to his classes for several weeks — he still found a way to make it to Bill Armstrong Stadium for practices.

“I really think I have a good eye for everything now,” he said.

Standing on the sidelines this year has forced Jones to take a step back and look at his life and the challenges he has had to face, Julie said.

“But he can adjust to it,” she said.

Already Jones has changed his diet, avoiding processed food and instead consuming more protein shakes, fruits and vegetables.

He filled the void biking left in his life by buying an entry-level Fender acoustic guitar and teaching himself to play.

He changed his major to health administration. He said he wants to teach people about preventative care.

But he said when he returns to full strength, he will take every opportunity to ride.

As a racer, Jones said there’s no question he wants to win the Little 500 next year.

The only way for him to do that is to be the best possible Jeff Jones that he can be.

“It’s really been a big change of heart because I’ve honestly changed my whole outlook to gear towards being healthy and being in shape and trying to be as good as I can be on the bike,” he said.

He has one opportunity left to ride in the Little 500 before he graduates, and he said he’s not going to let injury or a bad diet stop him.

“I will be as healthy and as fit as I can be, and I will do my best for my bike team because that’s what means the most to me as a racer,” he said. “I want to race, and I’m going to do everything I can to fulfill that goal.”

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