Courtesy: NAU Athletics
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (July 3, 2020) – Early on in her life, Northern Arizona University diver Alyssa Jones knew she wanted to be a surgeon.
So much so that her parents, even in jest, wondered what might be wrong with their daughter.
“I was watching doctor shows when I was really young. They were like there’s no way a little kid wants to watch those over cartoons,” Jones said. “My dream has always been to be a surgeon.”
That dream has been both challenged and strengthened during the past decade, forcing Jones to make tough decisions and find a new love at a young age.
A gymnast in her earliest athletic days, injuries added up and took their toll on Jones and her still growing body.
As those ailments piled up, one became more significant than the others. A wrist injury at nine years old ended up being the final blow to her first athletic career. After undergoing surgery and trying to return, now as a 10-year-old, Jones and her family came to a crossroads.
“It just wasn’t happening,” Jones said of her recovery. “The surgeon told me that if I continued to do gymnastics, I would have to have four reconstructive wrist surgeries by the time I was 16. Then if I continued after that, just more, more, and more surgeries.”
An additional complication of continuing in the sport would be the impact it would have on the future she desired: to one day be on the other side of those doctor’s appointments.
“They told me that if I continued doing gymnastics, I probably wouldn’t be able to use my wrist well enough to be a surgeon,” Jones added. “So, I came to a sport that would benefit me more long-term.”
Jones’ story is similar to many others than have come before. A youth gymnast in search of a new sport, either due to injuries or growth spurts, turns to diving where the previous experience and skills can translate to a safer environment. For Jones, she not only moved into a sport she’d one day compete in collegiately, but also developed an irreplaceable bond with NAU diving coach Nikki Huffman.
“Nikki’s been there from the start and has dealt with all of my little injuries through the ones that carried over from gymnastics,” Jones said. “I ended up finding out I also had a stress fracture in my spine from gymnastics and I had to take a couple months off with diving. She’s been very patient with all of my ailments.”
It might not have been a perfect replacement, but diving did give Jones some sort of comfort as she really got started.
“It wasn’t the same as gymnastics, but it definitely filled some part of the hole that gymnastics left,” Jones said.
That first step led to Jones eventually signing with NAU in November 2017, a culmination of the relationship Jones and Huffman built together in Flagstaff with the club team, Northern Arizona Divers. With a collegiate career always on her mind, first as a gymnast and then as a diver, Jones would watch NAU’s meets and see the future she desired for herself.
“Through all the years I was watching and cheering them on, and I just thought it was such a cool experience that they got to go and travel. I just wanted to be a part of that team,” Jones said.
And while she did explore other options before deciding to stay home, Jones knew the same trust she’d built over the years in Flagstaff wouldn’t be available anywhere else.
“I knew that being able to trust a coach as much as I trust Nikki, that that bond would never quite be there with somebody else,” said Jones, who’s prep career consisted solely of diving with Huffman as Coconino High School does not have a swimming and diving team.
Following her days as a national champion and All-American during her diving career at Oakland University in Michigan, Huffman’s coaching stops included her alma mater and Clemson prior to reaching NAU.
With nearly 30 years of coaching, including more than two decades in Flagstaff, Huffman knows exactly how crucial those relationships are within her sport.
“Especially with divers, it’s a small group,” Huffman said. “It’s a group where you have to be able to trust your coach. And you have to be able to trust your athletes, because if you’re not trusting somebody, then you’re not as confident. You can make mistakes and you can get hurt.”
With athletes learning new dives from elevated heights, the risk of significant injury is as prevalent in practice just as much as it is competition. For Jones, it runs even deeper given the injuries in her past, first carried over from gymnastics, and into this past season that she missed due to a shoulder injury caused by a car accident.
“We always had to modify a little bit. I think even just from being a gymnast, she was a little bit more prone to some injuries,” Huffman said. “There were a couple of years where we couldn’t even dive on 3-meter, but she is very dedicated. No matter how injured she was, she always showed up.”
Whether it was core exercises, leg exercises, or any kind of other work off to the side, Huffman said Jones’ dedication through every bump in the road showed she’d always give her best. With the two consistently working in sync, they’d bring the best out of one another.
“I understood her and I knew that she was giving me her all,” Huffman added. “Matter of fact, there’s a couple times I had to say, you know, you need to back off a little bit.”
Huffman stressed the communication between she and Jones, as well as all of her divers, as being critical to the success in the pool. With the smaller group, Huffman said a coach should be able to know how all of their athletes are doing mentally and physically.
Flexibility with workouts based on moods and energy is important to Huffman, with the results likely to be ugly if you try to force them through an intense practice.
“A lot of it is experience and even just changing with the times,” Huffman said. “You have to adjust all the time. I think these days, athletes have started training at a much younger age. That’s been the norm for quite some time now and because of that, there are overuse injuries there.”
FACING A TOUGH DECISION
Together, Jones and Huffman were forced to make another tough decision this past fall. A freak accident spoiled what would have been her sophomore season for the Lumberjacks.
“I got hit by a driver and it totaled my truck back in May of last summer. I had just gotten back into the water from another injury, so it was just really frustrating,” Jones said. “I tried to dive through it for a while and I went to a different doctor and they tried injections. I probably had 50 injections in my shoulder to try to help me just get through the season.”
Worried she’d let her team down if she sat out the season, Jones and Huffman tried to manage the pain, while delaying surgery until the offseason. The excitement for her sophomore year generated from Jones’ success as a freshman. Reaching the WAC Championships on all three dives, the 1-meter, 3-meter, and platform, Jones’ first collegiate experience was considered a success.
Reaching the B finals in the 1-meter and 3-meter during 2019, Jones finished 13th in the former, the second-highest scoring freshman at 227.25. For the 3-meter, Jones ended up 12th overall as the top freshman at 237.25.
Her freshman year happened to coincide with a senior-heavy championship meet, with those same scores looking even better following the 2020 championship meet. Had she dove this year, Jones’ scores would have finished seventh on both boards.
“She’s a huge physical talent. I was super excited, I think the sophomore year is always the best year, you’ve been through it once and you know what to expect,” Huffman said. “She was ready, she even learned one dive right before she did her surgery, which was hilarious. She could really kind of do fronts and and inwards without it hurting a lot, but she couldn’t do backs and reverses. She decided, ok today’s the day and she learned a front 3 1/2 about a week before surgery.”
Adding to the fear of giving up her season was the fact that Jones had already seen one career end following a surgery. With her wrist surgery failing to lead to a full recovery in gymnastics, Jones had to get over the mental hurdle of what might follow another surgery.
Additionally, Jones’ dream of being a doctor remains as prevalent as ever. Having spent a significant amount of time with orthopedists over the past few years, Jones grew to appreciate their work even further and currently majors in biomedical science following her graduation from the Coconino Institute of Technology at Coconino High School.
“If I do this, there is this chance that I will not be able to have the range of motion back to dive again,” Jones said she thought to herself. “Then I thought about it. I’m so much stronger. I know my body better, and I can work hard through physical therapy and I know that I can get back to where I want to be.”
Unsurprisingly Huffman served as a critical part of the decision-making process. Suggesting Jones speak to a few other divers, who had undergone similar procedures, and speaking from her own chronic shoulder problems, Huffman attempted to calm her athlete’s nerves.
“In the end, when we realized we used all of our options, she was so supportive. She told me that I don’t need to worry about the rest of the team, I need to do what’s best for me,” Jones said. “It was just really nice to have that, because I’m so close to her and she’s like a second mom, she does want what’s best for me.”
Jones is now near full clearance to return to the pool, but her return to the sport hit another road block due to the current pandemic restricting access to facilities. Already out of the pool for a longer period of time than she has been since she started the sport, Huffman knows Jones will soon be anxious to get back to where she was before her surgery.
“I think, to be honest, she’s going to be so gung ho to go that I’m probably going to have to hold her back a little bit,” Huffman said. “She’s going to be so excited and wanting to go that we want to make sure she doesn’t go too fast, and lets everything heal properly.”