Former Walla Walla High School swimmer Tyler Jones has achieved two big goals for himself this year.
In April, he signed a letter of intent to compete for an NCAA Division I school — the University of Cincinnati.
At the end of May, the 19-year-old earned a qualifying time for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Omaha, Neb.
Jones, who trained in high school with Walla Walla Swim Club and the Tri-City Channel Cats, will compete in the Trials on Saturday in the men’s 1,500-meter freestyle.
He will be the second member of his family to swim in the Trials. His brother, Carl, finished 36th in the 1,500 in 2008, after his freshman year at the University of Tennessee.
Tyler began to get serious about swimming a few summers ago — before his junior year of high school. His first senior sectional time got him thinking about his future.
“I thought, ‘Hey, I could go to college for swimming, and I always wanted to be an athlete in college,’ ” Jones said.
Jones also played quarterback on the Wa-Hi junior varsity team, but it didn’t take much for him to give up football for the pursuit of swim glory.
“I wasn’t big enough for football,” Jones said. “I had to think realistically, and I just knew that swimming was a good thing for me. I was built right for it.”
His instinct was spot-on.
Jones didn’t make the state swim meet his first two years at Wa-Hi, but as a junior, he was the district champion and finished third at state in the Class 4A 500-yard free. He also was seventh at state in the 200 free.
His senior year, he won districts and state in the 500 free and took fourth at state in the 200 free.
However, his rapid rise meant that he wasn’t necessarily on college coaches’ radar screens.
“I wanted to get a scholarship for a Division I college,” Jones said. “I just knew with the times I went my senior year in high school, I wasn’t going to get anything because I started improving so late in my career. I started getting faster in my junior year so colleges didn’t know about me.”
In search of more training, Jones headed down to Southern California after graduating from Wa-Hi in 2015. He joined Team Santa Monica, where his brother was an assistant coach.
“Since I got here, I’ve dropped 30 seconds in the 1,500,” Jones said.
Team Santa Monica head coach Dave Kelsheimer estimates Jones is doing 70,000 to 90,000 meters in the pool every week — perhaps small potatoes compared with his 1,000-mile trek to bustling SoCal.
“He’s done a lot of the hard lifting as far as getting himself here and moved,” Kelsheimer said. “He’s been living with his sister (Whitney, 30) in order to make this work down here. I think there aren’t a lot of 19-year-olds who could give up their first year of college and be so singularly focused on getting better and improving to the degree he has and actually close the deal, actually get the job done.”
Jones hopes for more big time drops when he heads to Cincinnati.
“There’s one guy (at Cincinnati) that has improved so much in the distance swimming over the last year — he dropped 12 seconds,” Jones said. “I noticed he was dropping, and I thought that was a good sign. I talked to the coaches, and they were interested in my training. They wanted to bring the training I’m doing here in Santa Monica to Cincinnati because it’s been working for me.”
Jones qualified for the Olympic Trials with his time of 15 minutes, 46.27 seconds at the Speedo Grand Challenge on May 27 in Irvine, Calif. He quit his job at a frozen yogurt shop to focus on the Trials.
He will compete in the 1,500 along with fellow Team Santa Monica swimmers Jordan Wilimovsky and Brendan Casey. Wilimovsky is seeded second, Casey 41st and Jones 84th out of 101 qualifiers.
Wilimovsky and Casey are accomplished open-water swimmers. Last year in Kazan, Russia, Wilimovsky won the men’s 10-kilometer world championship and qualified for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Casey claimed gold in the men’s 10K at the 2014 Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Hawaii.
Jones wants to chase them down.
“The world’s best junior open-water swimmer and the world’s best open-water swimmer, who are also pretty darn good in the pool — having those guys next to you, it’s pretty unique, and Tyler’s definitely embraced every moment of that opportunity,” Kelsheimer said.
Jones has gotten a bit of a pre-Trials pep talk from Kelsheimer, who was named a 2016 U.S. Olympic open-water assistant coach.
“He told me that a lot of people don’t drop time,” Jones said, “but if I just go in thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s a big meet, but I’ve worked hard enough,’ that I can do something. I can impress people.”
Or keep impressing people, that is.