Feb. 2, 2017
By Megan Golden
NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- University of Notre Dame assistant track and field coach and 1999 North Central College graduate Pristina Jones was presented with North Central’s 2017 Cleo Tanner Award on Thursday. Jones accepted the award at North Central’s National Girls and Women in Sports Day luncheon at Wentz Concert Hall in Chicago.
The award annually recognizes the individual who has positively influenced women’s athletics in their chosen career path. Tanner served as the physical education director for women in 1928 and later was an advisor to North Central College’s Women’s Athletic Association.
"Pristina's outstanding athletic achievements in the sport of track and field and her contributions to the sport make her an ideal candidate for the 2017 Cleo Tanner Award,” North Central assistant athletic director Susan Kane said. “Since graduating from North Central College in 1999, she has spent countless hours coaching track and field and inspiring female athletes at the youth, high school and collegiate level."
Jones said she is humbled by the award and still cannot believe she is this year’s recipient.
“I’m still shocked,” she said. “It’s funny because I just said I need to go back and get more involved. Out of the blue, I received this email. My eyes were big and my mouth fell open. It’s always a great honor to receive an award like this, especially from my alma mater. I’m extremely excited and pleased about it.”
Jones and Kane, who were track and field teammates at North Central, helped guide the program to its first women’s relay national championship in the 4x400m relay at the 1999 NCAA Division III Indoor Track & Field Championships.
“I remember every minute of that race and remember Pristina anchoring our relay team to a national title. We made history that day. It truly is a day I'll never forget,” Kane said. “Pristina could always brighten up every workout or meet with her sense of humor and positivity. We laughed a lot, and I have many fond memories of being her teammate.”
Jones, who was an 11-time All-American at North Central, spent time as an assistant at Jacksonville State before leading the programs at Chicago State and Jackson State. She also coached for two seasons at Warren Central High School (Indianapolis), while simultaneously earning her master’s degree in Applied Management from Indiana Wesleyan.
The Activity Bus
This particular energetic and youthful middle-schooler was walking out of gym class one day, when her teacher stopped her and demanded that she stay after school for track practice. The school’s gym teacher, who doubled as the school’s track and field coach, told Jones that she must call her mother and take the activity bus home, or else she would fail gym class. He noticed her athleticism and told her he wanted her to give track and field a try.
Despite Jones’ skepticism surrounding the sport and her disinterest in “running around in a circle,” she agreed at least to show up.
“Who does this for fun? That was my exact thought. Are you guys kidding me? What is this?” she said. “I was winning, but I was dead. I don’t know how I won. I used to think, ‘Why do they run around the circle for fun?’
“I had no clue. I just knew to get in line, and when the gun went off, go.”
Jones continued practicing with the team after school each day. Her naivete was evident but so was her talent. In just her first season -- her junior year of high school -- she competed at the state meet.
Looking back on her inexperience, Jones laughed and recalled a race in which she was so nervous that she told the starter to “hold up,” while she stepped off of the block to puke in the nearest trash can.
“I probably ran my whole junior year and part of my senior year not having a clue about how it operated or about what track really was,” she said. “I was really competitive and I found something I didn’t know was there. I wasn’t looking for it or anything; it just kind of fell in my lap.”
Several college scholarship offers later, the Riverdale, Illinois, native decided to enroll at North Central and compete at the Division III level. Jones, who became the first member of her family to attend college, figured that if track and field did not work out, she would at least receive a quality education at a school close to home.
As a freshman at North Central, Jones was still questioning that decision she made after gym class years prior.
“I discovered long jump because I was trying to get out of running two days a week,” she said of her first few months at North Central. “I said, ‘So let me get this straight: You go over there on Tuesdays and Thursdays and you’re long-jumping? You don’t have to run a workout? Coach, please let me long jump. Please, let me try.’”
Jones was successful in her pleading, and sure enough, she excelled in the long jump. In addition to her 4x400m relay championship, Jones went on to win titles in the indoor and outdoor long jump as a senior in 1999.
Eighteen years later, Jones remains adamant that it was her friendships and not “running around in a circle” that kept her interested in the sport.
“Getting to travel to different schools and meeting different people and getting to see them down the line -- even collegiately -- we still kept up with each other,” she said. “Learning how to be social, learning how to be part of a team, learning how people come from different backgrounds and can have that commonality with each other. How it can still just work out. When you have a great team and great people around you, you can actually do great things.”
Jones said she crosses paths with multiple North Central graduates-turned-college track coaches each season.
“It’s almost like a sorority or fraternity. I don’t regret making that move and going to North Central,” she said. “When I started doing really well, other schools were seeking me out. I stayed there because I think that’s where God meant for me to be. That was the place for me. I came out an 11-time All-American, three-time national champion, and I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”
Marcy Thurwachter, former North Central track and field head coach, positively influenced Jones’ athletic career and taught Jones the importance of relationship-building as it relates to coaching.
Today, as an assistant coach at Notre Dame, Jones is constantly reminded of Thurwachter and her coaching philosophy. Jones said Thurwachter emphasized the importance of togetherness and sticking with each family member through the end.
“[She talked about] how to not only be a great athlete while you’re here but to be a great person later,” Jones said. “Being humble all the time, being able to know how to be an individual but still be a team and being respectful all of the time. [She] talked about stuff you learn in track and how to carry it into your life. Be able to matriculate through life and be able to pass it on where needed.”
Jones said she frequently catches glimpses of her college self in current Irish athletes. One of those student-athletes is junior sprinter Jordan Shead, who had high praise for her coach.
“Coach Jones has always been a rock for me in my collegiate career,” Shead said. “Throughout the years, her coaching has given me the tools I need to succeed as a student-athlete, with everything from time-management to having confidence in my races.
“Coach Jones brings a positive, joyful spirit to practice everyday. Her bubbly smile and the care she has for her athletes make the track and field environment more enjoyable. At the same time, her strength and wisdom as a coach is undeniable. [She] is someone I look up to and someone who inspires me to do my best every day.”
Megan Golden, athletics communications assistant director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since August of 2016. In her role, she coordinates all media efforts for the Notre Dame women's lacrosse and cross country/track and field programs. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Golden is a 2014 graduate of Saint Mary's College and former Irish women’s basketball manager. Prior to arriving at Notre Dame, she worked in public relations with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.