Tragedy to Triumph: Mass Shooting Survivor to Conference Champion Part of Healing Process for Scots' Jones
Monmouth, IL (03/23/2020) — (Editor's Note: There is a short version (1,000 words) available upon request.)
Valentine's Day 2018 was just like any other at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. - that is, until a lone gunman opened fire in the worst high school mass shooting in U.S. history, changing Kyle Jones' life forever.
"It was the last period of the day, about 20 minutes before the final bell, and the fire alarm went off," said Jones, now a sophomore economics major at Monmouth College, a liberal arts school of 1,000 students in western Illinois. "I was really suspicious. We had had a fire drill that day and it was too close to the end of the day, so I knew something wasn't right. A lot of my classmates had that same feeling."
By the end of the ordeal, 17 had been killed, 17 others wounded and countless others left with deep emotional trauma. That Wednesday afternoon, Ash Wednesday at that, had started as an upbeat day.
"Everyone was in a pretty good mood with it being Valentine's Day," said Jones. "Because it was Valentine's Day, it kind of took us off guard. We really never would have guessed something that horrible would happen at our school, or our town. Parkland is a really safe community."
Jones and his classmates knew the drill and headed to their designated "Safe Zone." That's when it became all too real.
"By the time I got out of my classroom and to the stairs, you could hear the gunshots," he explained. "It sounded like someone was punching on the lockers. At that point, I knew it was a shooter. You could see the tension on the faces of the security officers and we all knew it was no drill. They (security officers) were trying to direct us, but it was like a stampede of people trying to get to the safe areas."
Jones eventually made it to a safe classroom and, like many students, phoned family to tell them he was safe. That was a relief to his mother, Mireille, who was at work and unaware of the situation unfolding at Stoneman Douglas until a frantic call from Kyle's older sister, Chloe, who was away at college.
"My daughter phoned me to turn on the news that something was happening at Kyle's school," said Mireille. "When the gravity of it hit, I grabbed my keys and told my co-workers I was leaving. I really don't remember going from Point A to Point B, but I did speak with Kyle and he told me they were safe, huddled in a corner of a classroom. He was whispering and I knew it was serious."
Not all the students and school personnel made it to the safe zones. Among those killed were athletic director Chris Hixon, who ran toward the gunfire in an effort to help the students; assistant football coach and security guard Aaron Fies, killed shielding two students from the gunman; and Nicholas Dworet, Jones' close friend and teammate on the Eagles' swim team.
"Nick was the one who got me involved in swimming," said Jones with a far-off look in his eyes. "He's the one who got me motivated to swim. He guided me through swimming and taught me a lot of things."
Fast forward to Feb. 15, 2020, two years and one day since the shooting, in the middle of Iowa some 1,500 miles from Parkland as Jones competed for his Monmouth College swim team at the Midwest Conference Swimming and Diving Championships.
Entering the 100-yard breaststroke as the seventh seed, Jones qualified for the finals and stunned everyone, including himself, when he won the conference crown with a career-best time of 57.89, two-tenths ahead of the runner-up and a mere 23-hundredths off Monmouth's school record.
"I didn't know I had won," admitted Jones, whose time made him the second-fastest 100-yard breaststroker in program history. "I set goals in each swim and my goal was to be in the top three, but I don't wear my contacts when I'm swimming and I'm pretty much blind without them, so I couldn't see the scoreboard. I didn't know what I did until (teammate and five-time conference champion) Preston Bocchi told me I won. I wasn't sure I believed him and kept asking everyone, 'Did I win?'"
Yes, you won, Kyle. And you weren't alone.
"I feel like Nick was there helping me somehow - I had some kind of extra energy," said a somber Jones. "He was going (NCAA) Division I for swimming and never got the chance. Immediately after I realized I had won with a time I thought was unobtainable, I thought about Nick. He knew my potential and would have had a big smile on his face. He would be so proud of what I had accomplished."
Jones' family was all smiles, too, albeit from half a continent away.
"That was pretty special for my family to see it live," explained Jones of the livestream video his family in Florida watched of the championships. "ALL my family, my stepfamily, too, were watching. My family has been super supportive. It was almost like everyone important in my life was there."
The electricity of the moment just a few miles east of Des Moines, Iowa, reached all the way to the southern tip of Florida.
"That was fantastic to watch," said Jones' mother with a palatable glee in her voice. "We all just screamed when he won. We have a very supportive family and I can't tell you how proud we all are of him. There will be lots of hugs and kisses when he gets home for the summer. We're just so proud of him."
While the family saw the winning swim, what they DIDN'T see was their favorite son sporting his championship medallion for the next two days.
"Kyle was pretty excited about the title and getting the medal," said Fighting Scots' swim coach Tom Burek. "He wore it the rest of the day and most of the next. It was refreshing to see such pure, innocent joy."
To get to this point in Jones' life, we must return to that horrible, awful, terrible day 731 days earlier.
"We were sheltering in the classroom and really didn't know how many shooters there were," said Jones. "I actually felt safe where we were in the classroom. Once we got outside, it was surreal with the helicopters flying overhead and all the police around. Parkland is one of the safest cities around, but then this happened. A lot of my close friends were impacted, and four of them died."
That kind of carnage isn't something anyone is prepared for, but especially high school seniors who are supposed to be making plans for their future. College, jobs, a career in the military were all in their thoughts, not the life and death struggle to survive a mass shooting.
"It (the shooting) definitely opened my eyes to just how fragile and short life can be," said Jones, himself a fit 6-foot-3, 19-year old. "I've slowed down and thought more about what I'm doing now. I don't take things for granted like I was before. It really impacted my swimming."
That brings us back to Jones' conference title for the Scots and adjusting to his first two years at Monmouth College. He was far from home, far from all that was familiar, but not so far in his mind from all those memories from just months before.
"I knew when I got to Monmouth I wanted to swim for Nick," said Jones of his fallen friend. "His goal, his dream in life, was to swim in college and go to the Olympics."
Jones has used athletics and other extracurricular activities at Monmouth to help with the healing process. He's moving forward, while also looking back.
"I've fallen in love with swimming again," smiled Jones, who is also a record-setting goalkeeper on the Scots' water polo team. "It reminds me of the process Nick fell in love with. The fact that I'm falling in love with it again is inspiring and kind of brings me closer to him."
While Jones is feeling closer to his high school friend, he's still more than 1,300 miles away from home, but the move to Illinois - and a school a third the size of his high school - fit his search criteria.
"I wanted to play water polo in college," said Jones, who holds Monmouth's top three single-game saves marks and is on the verge of breaking the Scots' career mark in just his third season this fall. "I knew Division I was out of my reach so I was looking for a Division II or III school. I wanted to be able to do multiple things in college and have a balanced lifestyle. If it weren't for polo, my mom would have wanted me to stay in Florida for sure. Living this far away is tough. The year before, my sister left for college, so it was just me and my Mom at home, then I moved off to college, too, and she's by herself."
While Kyle has adjusted to his new life, his mother is taking her own route to life without kids in the house.
"I poured myself into my work," explained Mireille of her transition to her new normal. "I'm coping with all those experiences. Sending Kyle to Monmouth was a great decision."
Water polo coach Peter Ollis may have opened the door to Jones' move to the Midwest, but it was something else that sealed the deal.
"I checked websites and Monmouth caught my eye," explained Jones. "I liked their academic programs and their athletics. The community and campus is just so welcoming and very diverse. When my mom saw how comfortable I felt at Monmouth, she was sold, too. It clicked and just felt like home. I will admit, it's different than Florida. We get snow in Illinois and that's a new experience for me."
Jones' mother readily admits it was time to move on, even if it meant sending Kyle to a college in a different time zone and more than 1,000 miles away.
"Really, the kids from Stoneman Douglas needed move on, to get away from the sadness, even though it had been months since the shooting," she explained. "There were memorials and a sense of heaviness still lingering in the air. It was tough having both my kids away at college. You go from taking care of them every day, fixing them lunch, making sure they get to school, all the parenting things and then you're an empty nester."
That must have been an adjustment for the mother of two. Not only going to a one-person household, but sending your only son - a mass shooting survivor just six months removed - to a school you didn't even know existed until a few months ago.
"My daughter is at a large university, but the small campus and family atmosphere at Monmouth was a perfect match for Kyle's personality," explained Mireille. "It's a very mentoring and supportive environment. If it hadn't been for Kyle's desire to play water polo, we might never have looked at Monmouth."
Jones has immersed in campus life, and in the Midwestern winters. He's joined the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and plays in the jazz band. The two-sport student-athlete keeps busy with all four of his extracurricular endeavors and credits organization as the key to keeping busy as part of his healing process from that unspeakable day.
"I knew I wanted to be involved in Greek life and music when I came here," said Jones who plays bass guitar. "Staying organized is really important and it takes a lot of organization to do this. Communication is also important, making sure everyone knows what you're doing. Communication and organization have helped me out a lot."
A busy schedule, and busy mind, have helped Jones on his journey from tragedy to triumph.
"It definitely takes my mind off things for a while," admitted Jones of his hectic schedule. "It keeps me active, but I've always had a lot on my plate, so it feels normal to be this active with sports. That was the norm for me in high school and my college schedule helped me get back to that normal. I was expecting to keep occupied when I came to Monmouth and the college hasn't let me down."
Each day moves Jones further away from that fateful February day two years ago, but that doesn't mean the grieving has totally subsided.
"Yeah, I'm still grieving, but it's not a constant, everyday thing," said Jones of the long and often painful healing process. "It's best to stay active and keep my mind busy. I'll never get over it. I'll always have that absence of closure of not being able to really say 'Goodbye' to my friends and the others who died that day. Something that raw will never settle in my mind."
What advice would this survivor give to others?
"Never stop holding onto the memories of those you lost," pleaded Jones. "Know that it's hard, but you'll get through this. Appreciate the memories and all the positives you've shared."
That brings us to the Kyle Jones of today, a confident, caring student-athlete who would like to find his future in some field of finance or perhaps aeronautics, knowing his past has shaped his future.
"I feel like I've changed emotionally since that day," said Jones of the shooting. "That day, we experienced something unnatural. I'm probably mentally tougher in difficult situations now, but at the same time I've become a better, more caring person and realize just how precious life is. You've got to be sincere and genuine in your relationships … all the time. Life can end in an instant."
Given all he's been through, the highs of college life and winning a conference title, and the unspeakable low of that February day in 2018, Jones' mother sees the same, yet different young man her son has become.
"Yes and no," she responded when asked if she's seen a change in Kyle over the past two years. "One on hand, he's still very much my little boy and that will never change, but he's much more independent now. He's taken his own path, he's a little taller with more hair, but he's still the same caring, sensitive person he's always been."
Between academics and athletics, Jones isn't able to return to south Florida as often as his family would like, but when he does, you can bet those hugs will be just a little bit longer and tighter … even if he is still wearing his conference championship medal around his neck.