Weeks before what could have been a second trip to the U.S. Olympic Trials, Walla Walla swimmer Carl Jones decided to walk away from the sport.
He felt he had no choice after a sordid tale unfolded while he was on the men’s swimming team at the University of Tennessee.
Longtime head coach John Trembley was fired in January after an internal investigation into reports that he was soliciting donor funds for personal gain led to the discovery of sexually explicit emails in his university account.
Then, within a few months, assistant coach Lars Jorgensen, who became the interim head coach after Trembley’s firing, was out of a job altogether after women’s head coach Matt Kredich was named the coach of the combined men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs.
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Jones considered training with Jorgensen through the Olympic Trials, but lack of money, limited pool time and frustration with the Tennessee program outweighed his desire to continue.
“Once my coach got taken away from me, I was like, ‘I’ve been to the trials in ’08. I don’t want to go to trials just to go,’ ” said Jones, who qualified for this year’s trials in the men’s 200-, 400- and 1,500-meter freestyle.
Jones met Trembley in March 2006 at the U.S. Swimming Spring National meet in Federal Way, where he qualified for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 1,500 free. Jones was looking at USC, Auburn, Indiana and Maryland, but Trembley recruited him for the Volunteers.
“They weren’t known for distance,” Jones said. “He really wanted to build a distance program around me.”
Jones also was a offered a 25 percent scholarship. Other schools wouldn’t give him a number until he committed.
Jones and former Richland swimmer Patrick Beasley were among nine athletes to sign with the Volunteers during the early signing period for the 2007-08 season. But after Jones got to Tennessee, he started to think he might have made a mistake in trusting Trembley.
“Since my freshman year, it’s been kind of crazy,” Jones said. “Every year, seniors when they graduate, they have a talk with the athletic director and give grades on performance of coaches and athletic programs. Seniors consistently have said stuff.
“They’ve had it on record for a long time that our coach isn’t being a good coach. Sometimes he was at practice. Sometimes he wasn’t at practice. Sometimes he was hiding under his desk. We have crazy stories about him, and they just never really acted on our information.”
Jones’ mother, Anne North-Jones, had struggled to believe some of the stories he told her about Trembley. But once the investigation went public, North-Jones felt conned by Trembley, the 2011 Southeastern Conference coach of the year.
She was heartbroken for her oldest son.
“He went there to swim. He went there to fulfill his dream. He went to Tennessee to achieve his goals,” North-Jones said. “None of it happened the whole four years he swam.”
Jorgensen helped relight a fire that Jones tried to stomp out when he left the team after a difficult junior year. He stayed in Knoxville, worked and kept going to school. But he didn’t get a clean break from swimming, seeing as he lived with some of his former teammates.
Meanwhile, Jorgensen was hired in August 2010 as an interim assistant after assistant coach Joe Hendee was diagnosed with brain cancer.
When Jones saw Jorgensen conduct a practice, he believed he found the coach who could help him achieve his childhood dream of competing in the Olympics.
Jorgensen, a Tennessee graduate, was a 1988 Olympian in the 1,500 free. He understood the intricacies of being a distance swimmer better than any of Jones’ previous college coaches, including Trembley, who had been a sprinter for the Volunteers in the 1970s.
In December 2010, Jones got back in the water and set out to prove himself all over again. After a successful meet in Raleigh, N.C., he got his locker room privileges restored.
But things within the program spiraled downward. Hendee died in 2011, and 2012 began with a shocking dismissal.
Trembley, a married father of three, was in his 24th season coaching at his alma mater when he was fired for “gross misconduct,” according to a Jan. 3 letter from Dave Hart Jr., the vice chancellor and director of athletics.
In May, the circumstances surrounding Trembley’s firing were revealed, and Knoxville police said no criminal charges would be filed against him.
In a statement released through his lawyer and published by several Knoxville media outlets after his firing, Trembley said he had been treated for depression for several years.
“More recently I have struggled with substance abuse and addiction to fantasy communications with others through the internet,” Trembley said.
Rise and fall
Trembley’s behavior took a toll on Jones, who had been a standout swimmer for the Tri-City Channel Cats and Walla Walla High School.
Jones became Walla Walla’s first state champion when he won the Class 4A 500-yard free as a junior. He also took second in the 200 free behind Bremerton’s Nathan Adrian, who went on to win a gold medal in the 4x100-meter free relay at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
During his final high school season in 2007, Jones was named the Class 4A swimmer of the state meet after retaining his title in the 500 free and winning the 200 free.
Jones stayed with Richland/Hanford assistant coach Randy Willis for parts of two summers while he trained with the Channel Cats.
“He’s got an accelerator,” Willis said. “His aptitude and his best swimming is from 500 yards, 400 meters, to the mile. He can engage a powerful stroke, and he can keep up and maintain the pace.
“He’s the best I’ve worked with and seen around here at those distances.”
But at Tennessee, Jones missed the NCAA championships his first two years.
“I don’t think the distance program was up to the NCAA level,” Channel Cats coach Todd Stafek said.
Jones signed release papers and tried to leave the school after his sophomore season. The University of California was his top choice, but it didn’t pan out.
“I didn’t pay attention to my grades freshman and sophomore years,” Jones said. “They were not good enough to transfer, so I had to stay at Tennessee.”
In May, Jones graduated with a communication studies degree. He is back in Walla Walla, working at his mother’s print shop while he tries to figure out what to do next.
Had everything gone according to plan, this likely would have been Jones’ final week of competitive swimming. He was prepared to be done after the Olympic Trials or, had he gotten that far, the 2012 London Olympics.
After watching the trials on TV, Jones has thought about training for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, but he’s not sure whether he could make it work financially.
“I see such a frustrated, disappointed young man right now, so torn up over everything,” North-Jones said. “It’s so raw. It’s like, ‘How could it have gone so wrong?’ ”
Jorgensen’s story took a happy turn: Kentucky, Tennessee’s conference rival, hired him last month as an associate head coach. But Jones and his mother said their family is considering legal action against Tennessee for allowing Trembley to stay around so long.
“We knew this guy was unfit to coach us, and they did nothing about it,” Jones said. “They messed with a lot of guys’ careers.”
w Katie Dorsey: 582-1526; email@example.com