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jetting to the top
Story by Audrey Hanes, Photo by Amy Long

Now in his fourth year with Jonesboro Jets Aquatic Club, head coach Jon David Williford is passionate about growing the club and building up local swimmers in the sport that he has been involved with since he was a young child, especially as the team prepares for its popular summer session.

Williford started taking swimming lessons when he was 5 years old and joined a swim team when he was 8. He moved to Jonesboro his sophomore year of high school and helped start Valley View’s first high school swim team. At the time, the longtime swimmer was also a part of the Jets swim program back when the team had fewer than 20 swimmers year-round. He went on to swim for Drury University, where he went All-American his senior year and was a part of the 2008 NCAA Division II National Championship team.

He started coaching his junior year of college with a local high school team in Springfield, Mo., and from there he has steadily worked his way up from age group coach to assistant college coach. Williford moved back to Jonesboro and became head coach of Jets Aquatic Club in 2011, both for the year-round USA program and for the AAU summer program.

“We have come a far way in the past couple years,” said Williford. “Thanks to Shawn Drake starting the program back up and building it to now, where we have continued to grow and improve with numbers and times.”

The Jets coach says that under USA Swimming Virtual Club Championships, which measures every club team in the United States, Jets Aquatic Club moved up 500 spots from 2011 to 2012, more than any other team in the state of Arkansas. The program now has a master’s swim group for adults ages 18 and over, from beginning to experienced swimmers. It also offers swim lessons to
beginning swimmers at Trim Gym.

One major factor in the program’s continued growth was the City of Jonesboro’s complete renovation of the YMCA, which is now known as the Jonesboro Pool Center. This summer will be the team’s second in the new pool.

“That helped us to really develop and push our summer program,” said Williford of the renovation. “We are very grateful to Arkansas State for letting us use their pool as much as we do to continue to have a strong year-round program.”

As more and more athletes train year-round and stay with the Jets into high school, the program continues to build up talented young swimmers.

“We also have many swimmers get older and continue with the team where there is not as large of an age discrepancy between the oldest swimmers and the next age group,” said Williford.

“This is because of a large core of 10- to 12-year-old age group of swimmers when I first started who are now 13 to 14 years old and continue to train together and get better.”

The team’s list of recent accomplishments is impressive. In the past two years, the team has had three different Arkansas Age Group Swimmers of the Year: Will Little in 10-and-under boys and Jack Little in 12-year-old boys in 2012, Izzy Jones in 12-year old girls in 2013 and Jack Little again in 13-year-old boys in 2014.

In 2013, Joseph Giles became the first Jets swimmer in more than 10 years to qualify for USA Swimming Junior Nationals. Jonesboro High School swimmers Grace Tedder, Caitlin Cothern, Lilly Jones and Mary Katherine Kline teamed up for the highest 6A girls team score at the Arkansas High School State Swimming Championship. Bella Cothern, Will Little, Jack Little and Joseph Giles all have broken Arkansas state records in their age groups, as well.

“We have many dedicated swimmers, and Joseph is the start of some great swimmers coming up in this area,” said Williford. “It makes it very rewarding to discuss with the swimmers their goals they would like to achieve and then help them achieve the goals. We have swimmers now who want to make Olympic Trials and swim at big Division I schools. These are lofty goals and take a lot
of time and dedication to achieve.”

Giles, a senior at Jonesboro High School, has been swimming for nine years – ever since watching the 2004 Olympics. He currently holds the 100-yard backstroke record for both 6A-7A high school and USA Swimming.

“Jon David is very dedicated and is an expert in his field,” said Giles of his coach. “He always comes into practice with a purpose to make us better swimmers and overall athletes. He does a good job of making hard practices and conditions more endurable.

“The sport of swimming is awesome in so many ways. It teaches you that you have to work hard to succeed and to not give up when it gets difficult. Swimming builds character and produces hardworking, dedicated individuals.”

That work ethic, sense of teamwork and potential to be a lifetime sport is why Williford says that swimming is such a great sport for young children, teens and adults.

“Swimming is a sport where kids don’t sit on the sidelines,” said the head coach. “They will participate and get better if they are willing to try every day they come to practice. Swimming is also a sport where girls and boys practice together, and the teamwork of wanting to be better is developed here.”

Williford says that what he enjoys most about coaching the Jets team is the support and dedication from students and parents.

“To excel at swimming, swimmers have to be dedicated to
come into practice four to six days a week, ready to work hard and
work at being technically correct even when they are to the point
of exhaustion … and for the parents to trust that what I’m doing
is to make their child the best swimmer they can be, and for the
swimmers to believe and achieve more than they ever thought was
possible,” he said.

As the team heads into the 2014 summer season, which will run from May 1 through July 30, Williford hopes to grow the team even more with new swimmers.

“We are about to start our 2014 summer AAU season; this is a great time for any newly interested swimmers who would like to join,” said Williford. “… Swimming during the summer is a great time to be introduced to swimming and swim meets. Many swimmers who are older and practice on the team year-round started out with the summer league and continued with the yearround
team.”

For more information about Jets Aquatic Club, visit jonesborojets.com, and for more about joining the summer team, visit jetsaau.com or email coach@jonesborojets.com.