HE could see himself in them. He could see it in their young faces, the
exuberance that overcame them as they stepped onto the ice that day at the Laura Sims Skatehouse in Cobbs Creek Park. Bundled in winter coats,
members of the gym class from the Sanctuary Church Academy advanced in a tentative strides as their instructor, Johansan "Joey" Jones, called the girls over for their lesson. The boys headed to the other end of the ice. Cheerfully, Jones told the girls. "To warm up real quick, do two laps around the orange cones." Jones looked on with a smile as the group followed his command.
Joey Jones . . . perhaps you remember him. Thirteen years ago, he appeared on the front page of the Daily News. Inside, the paper told the story of his young life, during which at one point he lived in a church shelter. There, he saw some figure-skaters on television and, in an effort to emulate them, began sliding across the linoleum floor in his stocking feet. Sensing his enthusiasm for the sport, his mother, Karen, acquainted him with "real ice" by taking him to a public session at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received some initial pointers from a coach who become his surrogate father, Jimi Lewis.
In the wake of the Daily News coverage of his blossoming career - which led to his sponsorship for a time by Flyers owner Ed Snider - Jones appeared on "The Montel Williams Show," heard from Hollywood producers and booking agents, and followed a dream that would ultimately be beyond his grasp: To be an Olympian.
Occasionally, people would remember the frequent stories I had written about Joey Jones and would ask: "Whatever became of that kid? . . . you know . . . the skater?" The short answer is he is doing fine. At 26, he did not achieve what he had set out to do in the realm of competitive skating. But he has landed a position in the ensemble of "Disney on Ice" show "100 Years of Magic," which has been touring without him since he had knee surgery in December. Since then, he has been back in Philadelphia, where he has undergone rehab at the NovaCare Center and given some group lessons to children at Cobbs Creek, one of the places where Lewis worked with him years ago. Once Jones is done with the ice-show circuit, he hopes to become a coach himself, and give to someone else what Lewis and others have given to him.
"To get anywhere in life, you have to have help, and I had a lot of it," Jones says as he looks onto the group of girls skating. "I would like to do that for some other young person. Kids like this. When I was that age, I was the same way they are: I had that eagerness to learn something new."
With a few hours to spare before he headed off to rehab, Joey Jones sits in a Center City coffee shop. Rehabilitation from the torn meniscus he suffered during an on-ice fall in Biloxi, Miss., has gone well, yet he says he is still less than 100 percent. But he has seldom ever been that. Something always seems to ache - if not his knee, then his ankle; if not his ankle then his feet. His feet are always giving him trouble, ever since his old pair of skates disappeared along with some of his other belongings when a cousin with whom he had been living was evicted from his apartment. "The pair I have been wearing has no arch in them," says Jones, adding that he cannot afford $800 to $1,200 he needs for quality skates. So he just wears the ones he has.
Money has always been a problem. In fact, it may well be why he never ended up going as far in competitive skating as some believed he could - including himself. The financial strain eased somewhat with the $10,000 in donations he got from Daily News readers and the support he got from Snider, who helped cover his expenses until Jones graduated from high school in 2005. But figure skating is an expensive undertaking, and it gets increasingly more expensive as a young skater moves up, especially with the international travel that comes into play. Lewis and others donated their time and even some out-of-pocket expenses to keep him going, but ultimately, his career more or less came to a halt at the junior level.
"Even with sponsorship, it was hard," Jones says. "I was so appreciative of the help Ed Snider and others gave me. They were so generous. But you have to have the funds to able to stay with it, to be able to spend the hours and hours in practice. And then you have to be able to get to events. At one point I quit and came back, but I could never get together. I loved the sport - I obviously still do - but it just came down to money issues."
Lewis concurs. "Joey was an immensely talented skater and still is," Lewis says. "But the problem was, once he no longer had sponsorship, the amount of money that it takes was no longer there. We got along on $30,000 a year, and that did not include the coaching I provided or ice skates. He was using a beat-up, old pair he had. But to compete at the senior level, he would have had to have $45,000 to $50,000. We simply could not swing it."
When I first encountered Jones more than a decade ago, he was painfully shy. Interviews with him were a struggle, which outlets such as "Montel" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" discovered as they swooped in to follow up on the story. But his circumstances spoke for him: Who could not have been moved by the ordeal Karen Jones faced, or the unlikely goal to which her son aspired? All these years later, he looks back on the whirlwind of attention that he found himself in and says that while he enjoyed it in the beginning, it became a distraction. Correctly, Lewis told him: "There is no story unless you skate well." So he stopped doing interviews and began working ever harder to perfect his skills. Off the ice, he was home- schooled by a tutor that some of the skaters used at IceWorks Skating Complex in Aston, Delaware County. Lewis would take him there in the morning and deliver him in the evening to the Southwest Philadelphia home that Karen had found for them.
However bashful he was as a youth, he was an extrovert on the ice. With the spotlight on him, he had no fear. Even when he would fall, he would get up and skate as aggressively as ever. With the city engaged by his story, we joined him at the State Games of America in St. Louis in 1999. Only 13, he won a gold and bronze medal in the three events in which he participated over the summer weekend. Karen Jones hugged him and said, "My baby, I am so proud of you!" On the cover of the Daily News that Monday, there was a picture of him holding up his medals, accompanied by a headline that proclaimed: "I Did It!" In the years that followed, he progressed from juvenile to intermediate to novice and on to junior.
Jones remembers, "Between 2001 and 2003 was rough because I was growing. I had to learn how to jump in a whole new body. So the results were not what they could have been. But around 2004, I started winning competitions again." His room was full of medals. By 2005, he had received his high school degree, at which point he and Snider parted.
So, was the attention he received at such a young age a positive experience? Or did it come prematurely and place him under impossible pressure?
Jones shrugs. "I think it helped. I probably would not have gotten as far as I did without it. There were expectations that I had to live up to, but when I think of it now, I know that I was just very lucky. Remember, the whole city seemed to behind me and wanted to lend me a hand. And they did."
Lewis agrees. "Nothing but good came of the attention he received," he says. "In many ways, it enabled him to escape the legacy of poverty that was handed to him. With the help he received, he was able to progress in a sport that he would have otherwise never had a chance to become involved in. And it provided him with a sense that he could be someone in the world. That sparked him to work ever harder at it."
Choreographer Elizabeth Hollet-Shackett echoes that: "The attention helped him get what he could out of the sport. The financial support he received opened doors for him in a sport that can become expensive. And that became a character-building experience for him. Given where he is today, that would not have happened for him if he had not had the exposure he had in competitive skating."
He hooked on with Disney last year. Unable to acquire some type of sponsorship, which would have provided him with the ability to keep training and attend competitions, he applied for a slot with one of the big ice shows: Disney on Ice, the Carnival Cruise Lines, and Holiday on Ice. Disney hired him to appear in the ensemble for the 47-member cast, "100 Years of Magic," which is one of eight Disney ice shows touring the world. He earns $600 a week, out of which he pays for his food and $21 per night for his hotel. But the job does allow him to travel extensively - this year that includes more than a dozen cities in the United States and a trip to South American this summer. And it allows him to continue doing what he loves.
"You have to love skating to do this," Jones says. "We are always on the go - usually by bus. But we do go by plane if the trip is over 550 miles. But I enjoy it. It gives me a chance to do what I know how to do."
Disney has been pleased with him. According to Cory Obst, performance director for Disney on Ice, Jones is a "great kid. He came in here with such enthusiasm." Obst says he had not heard of Jones before he applied for the job but was immediately impressed by him. He says he could see that Jones just loved to perform, even if he was overcome with some initial shyness. Obst says Jones has emerged from his "shell" and has performed well. Given how he continues to improve, Jones could at some point step into a principal role with one of the Disney shows. Obst says he has the potential to earn a fine living.
Karen Jones remains proud of Joey. At the church shelter years ago, she wondered what would become of her young son, if he would ever get the chance in the world that had eluded her. Joey remembers those days well, that no matter how grim their situation became, "she always tried to do something fun with me." That was how he ended up at the public session at Penn: It was just an outing, somewhere to spend the day to do something together. Karen remembers how "crazy" it got when she was photographed with Joey for the cover of the Daily News (Joey's second appearance on the cover), how "the phone would not stop ringing." Someone from Hollywood called and said he wanted to do a movie. That never happened. Neither did the deal that a booking agent seemed certain would come to fruition. But what did happen is that her son created something of himself, even if it was not the Olympic dream that he had once set out to accomplish.
"I am very proud of him - oh, yes!" says Karen, who is unemployed living in a one-room apartment. "And I am thankful for what everyone has done for him over the years, especially Jimi. Jimi Lewis has been a dad to him."
Lewis chuckles. "I do think of him that way," says Lewis, who has allowed Jones to use a spare bedroom since he has been back in Philadelphia. "We have gone through a lot together. He knew that he could rely on me. And that I would never fail him."
There were 67 steps to the third floor of the church shelter in North Philadelphia where Joey and his mom stayed. To get there, it was a long climb. To get out of there, it proved to be even a longer climb, one that Karen has struggled with over the years. While Joey has gone on with a career and the possibility of even better circumstances, Karen continues to live within a spiraling cycle of poverty. Or, as she says: "Day by day." And that is precisely what gives this installment of the Joey Jones story a bittersweet ending.
The last year or so has been especially hard for Karen. Her oldest son was shot 12 times in a random incident. Incredibly, he survived and has recovered. But it was during that period that Karen saw her world once again fall apart. She lost her job and was evicted from the house she was renting. Consequently, she placed her belongings in storage in West Philadelphia and moved into a boardinghouse. During her stay there, she did not pay her storage fee, even when the storage company reminded again and again that her bill was in arrears. In keeping with their policy, the storage company auctioned off her belongings, which included more than 100 medals that Joey had won during his figure-skating career. Frantically, she says she tried to find out what became of them, but could never get to the bottom of it.
Quietly, Karen says, "I am so sorry that happened. I have had some bad times."
Initially, Joey was stunned to hear what had happened, as was Lewis. "I would have paid it if had known about it," he says. "Of course!" But Joey has since come to terms with it, if only because he has learned a larger lesson during the years since he slid across the floor of the church shelter in his stocking feet. Success is gauged not by winning alone.
As Obst says, "There is only one spot at the top." Instead, it is gauged to a far more significant degree by how the journey you have taken has shaped you into the person you are. So while Jones would love to have his medals back, he knows that the gold you carry around your neck is nothing compared with the gold you carry in your heart.