The Tragedy Of Te'Niya Jones, Who Lived Life The Right Way

If you had known Te'Niya Jones, or if you had understood where she had grown up or what she had gone through, you'd know why she was searching for something more in her life. 

"Te'Niya knew where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do," said Guy Thomas, her former high school track and field coach at Dunbar High School in Fort Myers, Florida. 

Jones had graduated at the top of her class at Dunbar. She had enrolled at the University of Kentucky with expectations of someday working in the medical field. And she was a former star athlete who had dreams of running--of competing, really--for the world's best hurdle coach in Lexington. 

But everything wasn't perfect. Her brother, Sam, had died nearly eight months earlier to gun violence. She had been to way too many funerals for a teenager. Her father wasn't in her life. She had dealt with friends or acquaintances or people close to her getting swept up in drugs and alcohol and violence. Perhaps that was one reason why she had begun to start studying religion, wondering where it fit in her life. 

And yet, she had risen above all of that. Over the last year, Jones had left all of it behind and began to experience life in a new place, with new people and a new future beginning to take shape. 

Even then, after living life the right way, Jones couldn't escape it. While on a student exchange trip to Jordan over the summer break and a weekend getaway to Israel with friends, she reportedly went out for a late swim in dark waters before being caught up in a deadly riptide that cost two people their lives. 

Jones, a rising sophomore at Kentucky, was reported to be missing on Sunday and was confirmed dead on Monday, per The Fort Myers News-Press. Her body washed ashore near Tel-Aviv according to Thomas. 

While the news of her disappearance worried many of her closest friends back home and those at Kentucky, the reality of her death shook those who knew her best, and to the many more in Dunbar who were trying, just like Jones, to make it out. 

Her cousin, Shanon Reid, a linebacker at the University of Tennessee, Tweeted how much her loss hurt. Another friend, Jayra Outten, who had gone on to play basketball at Furman University, Tweeted: 

Thomas, a father to four children, had known Jones since the fifth grade. He had been her coach through her youngest years, and that rapport continued while Jones was at Kentucky. The pair had messaged on Facebook while Jones was out of the country and she had told him, "Coach, I'll see you when I get back!" 

When hit with the news, he was devastated. As a track coach at a school like Dunbar, which encounters the realities of drugs and violence on a routine basis, it was hard for Thomas to explain to his athletes why this happened. 

"Every year it's something," said Thomas, who endured the loss of one of his sprinters to gun violence in 2016. "I try to let them know that this was a tragedy. I can see what they can't see. But some kids can't see past tomorrow. They're living for the moment. So I'm trying to help them make a change and increase their vision. Te'Niya was the first person to allow me to do this. She was the example of the philosophy I was trying to bring to Dunbar." 

The harder reality was knowing Jones did everything the right way and still perished. 

"She didn't die out of violence," he said. "She went to the school to do the right thing. She was 19-years-old and was an example." 

While Jones was a star athlete in track and field, her future was determined by her work in the classroom. She turned down full scholarship opportunities to compete in the sport at Alabama State and Florida A&M in favor of Kentucky, where her academics largely covered her bills. 

But if you knew Jones, Thomas said, you would understand why she chose Kentucky. Not only was it her dream school, but as an accomplished hurdler at 100- and 300-meters, she knew it was coached by the world's best coach, Edrick Floreal--he recently left Kentucky to take a job at the University of Texas. 

Her dream was to someday make the Wildcats track and field team and to train with the best. 

"One time she told me, 'I'm not going to fail, I'm going to work out all possibilities,'" Thomas said. "I'll fail so much until I win." 

Jones had a sterling sophomore season under Thomas, winning her conference, district and region titles in the 300mH, including a best of 47.97 seconds. She had done the same in the 100mH, eventually placing eighth in Florida's Class 2A championships. She earned a season PR of 15.24. 

Then she endured a devastating ACL tear the following year, which held her out of her junior season. She was out for much of her senior year, too. 

"The doctor told her she wasn't going to run again in high school," Thomas remembers. "But she came back and ran her last three meets, at districts, regions and states." 

The defining moment of Jones' high school career was in district and at regional qualifying, he said. Not knowing whether she had been fit enough to compete, she had expressed to Thomas the fear of missing out on states, of not closing her high school career with a flourish.

But she fought through all of that. She won districts, and then she took first-place at regions in a career best of 15.22 seconds. 

"She falls, gets back up and does it again," Thomas said. 

High school accolades were one thing. But Jones wanted to make one last run in the sport in college. At Kentucky--a program that featured the world's best young 400m hurdler, Sydney McLaughlin, and which had finished fourth at the outdoor NCAA Championships in 2018--she dreamed of making the team and competing for Floreal. 

"Had she not been injured at state, I believe she would have run a 14.2," Thomas said of Jones in the 100mH. "Floreal knew her situation. He told her he would give her a chance, but when he saw her knee, he said, 'Let's go through therapy and see where you're at.'" 

Jones had been training all summer. And before leaving for her exchange program, Thomas said she felt ready. She told him her knee was 100-percent. 

"There's no doubt in my mind that she would have made that team," Thomas said. "That's why she chose Kentucky, so she could have that opportunity." 

Jones will never get that chance now. 

But Thomas will always remember her for what she represented, for what she meant to the Dunbar community.

His favorite moment, the one he'll cherish for a lifetime, was after Jones' big win in the 100mH at regions her senior year. 

"When doctors told her she shouldn't run again, she looked me in the eye and said, 'What do you think?'" Thomas remembers. 'I said, 'what do you think?'"

"So when she came back and qualified at district, when she won that regional championship and gave me this big look, that was priceless.' 

"When I saw that," Thomas said again, "that was priceless." 

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