Dani Jones at the Nike Cross SW Regionals (photos by Margot Kelly)
According to the dictionary, confidence is defined as “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities”.
But no matter how able a runner is, confidence moves in and out in waves of doubt and uncertainty.
Danielle (Dani) Jones, now a junior at Desert Vista, is no different. Her freshman year as a distance runner she finished 25th at the Twilight Invitational and 17th at the Division 1 Arizona State Meet.
As a runner seeking improvement she often measured her advancement against the state leaders in the field. Her sophomore year she moved up significantly with a 6th place finish at the Twilight meet, a minute behind the winner, Sarah Fakler (Xavier College Prep, 2013) (30 seconds closer than the previous year.)
However Dani was not happy with her 6th place finish at the AZ State Meet, 2 months later, and her confidence sank as she headed to Foot Locker Regionals at Mt. Sac in California.
Putting the State Meet behind her she finished the Foot Locker race in 28th place with a time of 19:20 just 7 seconds behind 20th place finisher Fakler.
Her confidence was growing as she approached track and field, her favorite sport. “When I finished close to Sarah at the Foot Locker West Regionals I started to feel a little confident and it carried me into the track season.”
“Coach Messer put a lot of goals into my head,” said Jones about her new coach. “He told me what I was capable of and set really high goals. His goals became my goals.”
After a strong Winter training Jones had high expectations for a successful track season but the unexpected kept her from meeting her early goals.
“At the Chandler Rotary Track and Field Invitational, Dani had a severe iron deficiency and she was suffering emotionally because of her performance and was also suffering physically because of her condition,” shared Coach Messer.
As Dani’s condition improved so did her running and the turning point came at the Hohokam Invitational on April 19th, 2013 when Jones ran a huge PR of 4:54 in the 1600 finishing 2 seconds behind 1st place Fakler.
For Coach Messer the theme has always been, “have fun and trust yourself and great things will happen,” and that is what he told Jones before her 800 race at the Tempe City Meet - and then she ran a 2:10.33 for the 2nd fastest Arizona All-Time mark.
At the Arizona State Meet Jones won the 1600 meter in 4:51.17 (photo right) for the 5th fastest Arizona All-Time mark. A couple of hours later she went on to win the 800 meter run in 2:12. “I didn’t want to put pressure on myself - I just thought about racing. Even after the mile I told myself ‘if you don’t win - it’s ok.’ State was the most fun I have ever had. I was nervous but I had a lot of fun.”
Jones also finished 2nd in the 3200 meter run with a 10:48.23 PR (her previous PR was 10:59.10) and was part of the State Championship winning 4x800 meter relay. The teams relay time of 9:16.13 put the girls at US#16.
“After State my confidence went through the roof,” continued Jones. “I then had to start transitioning to cross because I didn’t have the same confidence in cross country as I needed too. I didn’t feel I was as strong in cross country as I am in track.”
But Coach Messer saw it differently. “I refuse to set any limits. Someone asked me last summer when I knew she was going to win the State 1600 in track - my response was ‘when I watched her run Foot Locker West Regionals’”.
Fast forward to 2013 Cross Country.
Jones winning season pushed her into the National spotlight starting with the meet record win (17:19.30) at the Twilight Invitational. She also won the City Meet, the AZ State Meet (photo left) and finished 4th at the Nike Cross SW Regionals during windy, cold and wet conditions.
“The Nike Southwest race was a lot worse than I thought it would be. It surprised me how muddy it was. I had to mentally prepare myself for the race.”
Jones took the race out conservatively and tried to move up gradually. “I was looking up ahead and saw how far the pack was and all I could see was mud - lots of mud! I caught a lot of ground the second mile and was in 8th place by 2 miles. I knew the last straight away before the finish was my best shot to catch people.”
Jones caught a few more runners on her way to a fourth place finish but was disappointed her team finished 6th and would not be going with her to Portland. “At first it was kind of nerve racking because once I got there (Portland) I saw a lot of teams and my team wasn’t with me but Mrs. Hardt (she was kind of like a team mom) did a really good job of making sure that everyone worked together. She made the whole Southwest like a team so we felt part of one team. We all had so much in common.”
“Nike kept us pretty busy and Coach Guy showed me around the Nike facilities, the course and he even showed me Alberto Salazar’s office.”
The temperature was 19 degrees and windy and even though Dani tried to stay positive about the weather, doubt started to creep in.
“For a long time I struggled with confidence my freshman and sophomore year. I began to feel intimidated by the girls in my region as the race was approaching. I talked to my coaches and they reassured me I was there for a reason and I could run with everyone.”
When Coach Hanson heard Dani say, “everyone here is so good” he stepped in to reassure her. “They ARE good and don’t think for a second you don’t belong here,” he told her. “Get that kind of thought out of your head. Regardless of what happens - we are so proud of you.”
So Dani stepped to the line believing she was there for the same reason everyone else was. To run and do her best.
“The plan was to take it out a little more conservatively. First mile I was around 40th place and I felt like I was sprinting. Back stretch was pretty flat so after the first mile I started passing girls to try to move up a lot. 2nd mile I was around 17th or 18th. My goal was Top 10 and after the 2nd mile I tried to move up a little bit.”
“I was just holding on the last mile and with a half mile to go I started to talk to myself to keep myself going. I kept trying to think of the end results.”
The end result was a 15th place finish in 17:55.60 and an All American Title.
“After I finished the race my hands were burning. I was given a solar blanket to keep warm - thank you very much!”
All in all the Nike experience was a great one for Dani.
“Coach Messer, Coach Hanson and Coach Guy really helped me out a lot. I had my mind set on top 10 but then I thought about how far I have come in a year and I felt a lot better. The experience was so great I would do it again easily. More than anything I want to take my team there next year. No matter how old you get - you can never forget this experience.”
With her confidence at an all time high Dani will look to more national races to see where she fits in. She credits much of her confidence to Coach Messer.
“He believed in me way before I believed in myself,” said Jones with a laugh. “Some of the things he told me I could do scared me but he is always right. When you look up to someone so much, you’re going to trust and believe him. Sometimes I will run a race and come out with a great time and Coach Messer will look at me and say, ‘I saw that coming.’ At least once I want to surprise him. I just want to run a great time so he’ll say ‘where did that come from’.
For Coach Messer the respect and admiration goes both ways. “It’s fun coaching Dani. She is close to flawless in her preparation - very much like Jessica Tonn (Xavier College Prep 2010, Stanford) and Kari Hardt (Queen Creek 2006, ASU 2010, BYU 2011). She’s a very competitive person and she wants to be the best she can be. My relationship with Dani Jones is a relationship based on limitless belief as her coach.”
For Dani - “He always knew I would crush the 5 minute mile barrier. He knew before he even started coaching me.”