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Jones making MEGA mark in Mitchell

Tom Jones, of Woonsocket, works with Chelsey Mohr on a drill during a MEGA Gymnastics camp Wednesday morning in Mitchell. Also pictured is Mercedes Dufek, back. (Brooke Cersosimo/Republic)

For the last nine years, Mitchell gymnasts have come to know the teaching style, passion and knowledge of Tom Jones.

Jones, who grew up in Ohio, recently became a resident of Woonsocket after moving from Cable, Wis., this week.

Since 2004, Jones has served as a volunteer coach and offered his knowledge with MEGA gymnasts and staff.

"At first, he was helping me see the errors the kids were making in high-level skills," MEGA and Mitchell High School gymnastics coach Audra Rew said. "He helped me see what the mistakes were, how to see them and how to fix them.

"Within nine years, he's given us an avenue. We want to give our kids a more rounded life and sometimes we sacrifice a little more in the gym because of that but we feel we're more efficient."

Wednesday, Jones came into the gym to put on a clinic at the MEGA High School Camp.

"It helps motivate the coaches and gymnasts and sometimes a new face gets the kids to make changes in skills," Rew said.

The former coach of a national champion has been around the sport for the last 45 years through starting a high school team, owning a private club, running a camp and being a coach and clinician.

Start in coaching

Jones had a goal of becoming a coach of a top football program in Ohio, but it took a turn. He would still be a coach, just not in what he'd initially hoped.

"(Football) was my best sport as an athlete," said Jones, who went on to teach physical education. "But in college, I knew I was going to do a gymnastics unit to give kids the chance to do something that I always wanted to do."

After graduating, Jones taught at Centerville High School in Centerville, Ohio. The school wanted to join the Western Ohio League in athletics but needed to be a 10-sport school in order to do so -- and gymnastics was on the list.

Jones volunteered to take on the program and spent the summer attending camps on the East Coast, at University of Michigan and University of Illinois.

"I drove everybody nuts at those camps," he said. "I asked lots of questions and had a desire to really learn about the sport."

He went back to Centerville and started the program in the fall and hosted the first gymnastics meet he'd ever attended.

"We got through it and actually won a few meets that year, and I realized more and more what I needed to do," Jones said.

Jones led Centerville High School to five consecutive state championships.

New gym, new camp

After building Centerville's program, Jones separated from the school to start his own private club called TWIGS -- True Winners in God.

"A lot of people said you can't mix a business and Christianity," he said. "But over 15 years, we had five gyms and over 2,000 kids in the program."

Jones stayed with TWIGS for 15 years and the gym still runs today under new ownership. During those 15 years, he coached a number of national champions -- including Kelly McCoy, who won the title in 1976 and competed internationally for the next four years. Jones also had 18 gymnasts earn Division I full-ride scholarships.

In 1986, Jones and his wife, Linda, made a decision to move their family up to Cable, Wis., where they started a gymnastics camp called Lake Owen Camp.

"That move from Ohio was really hard," said Jones, adding his family moved in April and began the summer camp in June.

The camp developed from 1986 to 2012, eventually conjoining with action sports, such as skateboarding, inline skating and BMX.

Over the course of 27 years, Lake Owen Camp exceeded 50,000 campers, who were exposed to hundreds and hundreds of club, national and international coaches and clinicians and Olympians. People from Australia, Mexico, Japan, France, South America, Canada and other places around the world and United States came to Cable -- which has a population of 800 people.

"God really blessed us in that business as well," Jones said. "We feel like we have a very large family now. ... With the help of a lot of great people, we feel we were able to do something very special there."

After 27 years, Lake Owen Camp closed in August 2012 and was sold. Jones said it was a hard decision to make but with his son, Matt, and daughter, Mindi, going in other directions, it was a challenge to keep it running.

"The deciding factor was built around our family," said Jones, who is 67. "With me being at retirement age without family being there to continue it, we felt it was probably best to celebrate the time we had there and move on."

Coming to South Dakota

As a child, Jones heard stories about the great hunting adventures in South Dakota.

Jones said his family was never able to make the trip from Ohio because it didn't have enough money.

"My father had heard stories about all the pheasant hunting and thousands of birds that would black out the sky," he said. "He told me, 'If you ever get a college education and have enough money, you have to go to South Dakota and hunt.' "

Jones said he set that goal and made the trip in 1968, adding, "I've been coming every year since."

"When the time was right, I invested in farmland, primarily so my family and friends could have a place to come to and enjoy South Dakota," said Jones, who bought a farmhouse in Woonsocket in 2003.

He and Linda now live permanently in the farmhouse and Jones has also been a hunting guide and dog trainer for several years.

Volunteering at MEGA

The first time Jones stopped in to watch MEGA gymnasts practice was in 2004 -- a time when the club was just starting out.

"Before I got out of the car Linda said, "You're not going to start coaching gymnastics again, are you?' " Jones said. "I helped and when I returned a month later, I could not believe the improvement in that short of time. I was immediately attracted to the potential of the gymnasts and program."

Jones said the club reminded him of TWIGS when he first got his start, adding, "I saw a hunger and I really have a heart from programs like this that really aren't in a metropolitan area."

A few years later, Jones served as a volunteer coach for the Mitchell Kernel gymnastics program and continues to volunteer when he can at the club.

Since Jones has offered his knowledge on technique and skill in the sport, MEGA sent around 40 gymnasts to Lake Owen Camp over the last eight years and took 21 gymnasts in one week in 2011, according to Rew.

Jones said he's seen growth in the equipment, gymnasts and coaches since he began investing time in the program.

"I've seen a tremendous change," he said. "This program has advanced since 2004 to really being one the premiere programs in the Midwest, certainly out of the ones with facilities like this without a ton of space and in-ground foam pits. They are competing way above what the expectations would be.

"This is no longer a recreational program. This is a very high-level, competitive training program. Mitchell is fortunate to have a program like this for young ladies."

Before the club added recreation programs and high school competitors, an average of 60 to 75 kids were involved. Now with the recreation programs offered at the club, along with competitive and high school gymnasts, MEGA had more than 500 kids participate in activities within the past year and a half.

Not only have the gymnasts taken in what Jones has taught but the coaches have realized their potential in working with him.

"It's kind of a cycle," Rew said. "He's passed on his knowledge to athletes he has coached. Christy (Wittstruck) shares that passion, and she now has learned from camps and brings it here and is doing remarkable things with our kids here."

Now in retirement, Jones wants to continue to help when he can.

"I'm still into it, and I love to teach," he said. "I don't have a desire to do it on a day-to-day basis, but I want to do what I can until God decides I can't anymore."

Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.