When Charlie Jones was 18 months old, he came up missing in the house. His parents looked everywhere, but couldn’t find him.
Finally, they heard Charlie laughing and followed his voice to the kitchen, where they found him on top of the refrigerator with his hand in the cookie jar.
The next day, they put Charlie into a gymnastics program. He was a natural climber, taking after his mother, who also was a gymnast.
“That was a big part of my childhood,” Jones said. “My parents were right there behind me the whole way.”
Jones went on to become one of the top-ranked young gymnasts in the U.S. He earned 30 national-level medals, including 11 golds. He’s a four-time All-American, and he nearly went to the 2004 Summer Olympics on the U.S. National Gymnastics Team.
Jones, an Aurora native, now works as a Colorado state trooper and lives near Mancos with his wife, Chelsea, and kids Ariella, 3, and Titus, 1.
A new high and lowAt age 17, Jones was ranked as one of the top 15 U.S. gymnasts. He was invited to live and train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
His roommate was Olympic gymnast Steve McCain. Speed-skater Apolo Anton Ohno lived in the room above him.
“It was a fun time in life,” he said. “I had opportunities that no one else gets.”
Jones trained three times a day, six days a week, going home on Sundays.
He was surrounded by some of the best athletes in the country. But he said he soon learned that even world-class athletes deal with ordinary struggles and insecurities.
“I realized that you can’t find your identity in being an 11-time national champion,” he said. “My identity can’t be in that, because one day it will all go away.”
It went away sooner than he’d expected.
Three months before an important Winter Cup competition in 2003, Jones dismounted during practice, and his right shoulder separated. Doctors told him he needed surgery, but could still compete at the Winter Cup without further damaging his shoulder. Jones’ vault was crucial to the team score, so he went through with the competition.
Several days later, he had shoulder surgery.
“When I came out, the doctors said ‘We’re sorry, you’re done,’” Jones said.
After his initial injury, an MRI had missed a razor-thin bone chip the size of a pea, Jones said. The chip had been carving away at the cartilage in his shoulder, and by the time it was discovered, he had almost no cartilage left.
He had been training for the 2004 Olympics, and hoped to be at the top of his class for the 2008 Olympics.
The hope was gone.
“It was a shock,” Jones said. “I was supposed to be getting into my prime, but that went away.”
The loss of an identityAs Jones’ life changed instantly, he thought of his friend Ricky Deci, a 13-year-old gymnast at the Olympic Training Center. He recalled Ricky’s infectious smile and happiness.
“He was always having fun,” Jones said. “He couldn’t be brought down in his attitude.”
When older kids picked on him, he’d laugh it off. No matter what came his way, Ricky was happy, confident and full of joy, Jones said.
One day, at the end of a workout, the team was competing on the pommel horse. Ricky was up last, and to win, he had to nail the dismount.
But when Ricky came off the pommels, he landed awkwardly and fell over. A trainer went to Ricky and discovered that he wasn’t breathing. Jones ran across the gym to find more people to help, and when he got back, the trainer was performing CPR. The 13-year-old soon was being hauled off in an ambulance.
Two hours later, trainers announced that Ricky had died of a heart arrhythmia. Doctors said there was no way to predict or prevent the attack – Ricky was otherwise in perfect health.
As Jones struggled with his injury and loss of career, he remembered how Ricky never let things get him down.
“Nothing you threw his way could shake him,” Jones said of his friend. “He lived that way until the end.”
Jones turned to his faith.
“Those are the moments that make you think what life’s about,” Jones said. “It’s not about being the Olympic gold medalist. It’s not about being a super trooper or being the best at your job. It’s about the relationships you have with your family, your friends and God. ... It was easy for me to transition into the next phase of life.”
A bridge to a new placeAfter retiring from gymnastics, Jones’ journey took him to South America, where he did missionary and humanitarian work for the next few years with Open Doors and 2nd Glance Ministries, a group started by his father Clay Jones.
In Colombia, Jones helped liberate orphans from the oppressive FARC guerilla group. In 2011, he worked with Peruvian government officials and civic leaders to fight sex trafficking.
After returning to the U.S., he coached gymnastics for about six years. During that time, he began ministering to former military personnel and law enforcement officers. One of those men was a former Navy SEAL. He taught Jones how to use a weapon, and Jones became a proficient shooter.
Jones soon found himself expecting a daughter and wanting a stable profession. He applied to the Colorado State Patrol Training Academy in January 2013.
Six months later, patrol assignments were available in Lamar, Colorado and Montezuma County. Jones and his wife had always wanted to see Mesa Verde, so they chose Southwest Colorado.
‘You’re coming out of it’Since summer 2013, Jones and his family have lived on a hill outside Mancos with a spectacular view of the La Plata Mountains.
As a patrolman, he deals with people who are having the worst day of their lives, Jones said. He meets them in those moments and tells them it will be OK – people are there to help.
“I like being a cop because I meet people on that worst day, and I help them through that process,” he said.
It’s sometimes stressful, but because he’s grounded in his faith, Jones said he gets through it. He learned how to do that at the Olympic Training Center and with Ricky Deci.
“Whether my job goes away tomorrow or I have a career-ending injury – I don’t want to invite those things, and I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt – you’re grounded and you can get through those trials,” Jones said.
“You don’t always get out unscathed, but you know you’re coming out of it. That’s what being a gymnast taught me.”