When Denise Jones was little and beginning gymnastics lessons, "My mother would take me, and I would cry, like `I don't want to go,' " says Jones. "I remember grabbing onto my mom; I did not want to go to practice."
What?Up till there, Jones was typical of most little girls who become serious gymnasts: Hyper.
Her mother took her roller skating, "but that wasn't exciting enough," she says. Her mother put her into ballet class. "Definitely not exciting enough," Jones says.
Gymnastics class would be perfect: Learn to bounce off the walls. Learn to bounce off the floors.
And it was perfect, except Denise was so timid it bothered her to enter the gym each day. "I was really, really shy in public, and wild and energetic at home. When we were out in public, I hid behind my mom. When I was home, I was running around the house," says Jones.
But days that she was left at the gym door in tears always ended up with her not wanting to come home.
"I loved it," she says. "As soon as I was there, working out, it was my favorite place to be. I was just shy, but the older I got, the more that wasn't a problem. I learned to be comfortable there, and then it transferred: At school I'd be quiet, and in the gym I'd be loud, and at home, I'd be loud," says Jones.
Now a sophomore for the University of Utah gymnastics team that seeks to recapture lost glory Thursday through Saturday at the 1998 NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships at UCLA, Jones has been one of the Utes' most-consistent all-arounders for nearly two seasons.
But she's done it rather quietly.
Jones has gone all-around in every meet this year except when a back problem crept up on her at the April 4 regional at Arizona State. She was the Ute co-leader in all-arounds completed as a freshman with nine. In 19 career all-arounds, she's been the winner only once, at Penn State as a freshman. But she has beaten the benchmark 39.00 score nine times, including the last three dual meets this season (39.10 at Stanford, 39.125 vs. Oregon State, 39.05 at BYU).
Jones set a career high of 39.25 Feb. 6 vs. BYU before a Huntsman-Center crowd of 11,468, probably about 11,460 more than were in attendance for her first few traumatic gymnastics-class appearances.
"I was able to express myself in the gym," she recalls of those kid-gym classes. "The coach had to put me and my friends in different groups. We were too loud, always having fun."
She's becoming more outspoken at Utah now, too, doing media interviews easily, even appearing on KSL-Ch. 5's SportsBeat Saturday to talk about nationals.
Jones hopes to log her 20th career all-around - depending upon her back - Thursday night when the third-seeded Utes attempt to qualify for Friday's Super Six team-championship night, which is what they failed to do in '97 for the first time. Utah tied Nebraska for the third qualifying spot in team preliminaries but lost the tie-breaker and was seventh in the NCAAs, its lowest finish in 20 years. The Utah program has 10 national championships in its 23 years. It has been runner-up four times and third twice and hadn't finished lower than fifth since 1978.
"It was really frustrating to not compete all-around at regionals," says Jones. "I've been doing it all year."
Her back began bothering her a couple of weeks ago, and the last home workout before the regional, she made it worse, so she wound up doing just vault and bars. "It was best for my team," she says. This week, "I think I'll be fine. I've been smart about it. I'm learning to manage it," she says.
Growing up in Carmichael, Calif., near Sacramento, Jones realized early that she had talent. In school P.E. classes, she could do 20 pullups when boys her age could do five or six. "My dad is really strong," she says, but she's the only serious athlete in the family. Two older brothers dabbled in sports. Still, gymnastics skills came easily for Denise from the beginning. She'd pick them up in minutes, and classmates would take days or even a year to learn the same things.
Jones made most of her friends through gymnastics, and it "taught me a lot of the qualities I've used - determination and the value of hard work. You can apply almost everything you learn in the gym to school - ambition, self-confidence. When I think of where I got my attitude and personality, it was largely through gymnastics," she says.
Jones appreciates it that her parents, John and Frankie Jones, never told her she had to keep on with the sport, the way a lot of her friends' parents did. She shudders about that.
But mom made it possible for her to delve deeply enough to make the 1992 Senior National Team and take third at the 1994 USA Championships, despite a torn knee meniscus. "She was always there to dress me and get me to the gym twice a day and make my meals. She washed my clothes. She did everything for me," she says. Once-shy Denise volunteers that her mom had to teach her how to do laundry before she went away to college.
Jones was interested for years in coming to Utah, and she was thrilled that coach Greg Marsden came to see her on the first day of NCAA recruiting. "It made a big impact," she says. She took other trips (Arizona, Washington, Michigan) just to be certain.