Thomas Jondall left Tucson for the Continent over the weekend. He'll be in Europe for a month or so, competing as a member of the USA Junior cycling team in events in Belgium and Italy. It wasn't that long ago that he was basically homeless and parentless, sleeping in the park, not going to school, and riding around town on a beat-up bike, hoping that the sound of the blood racing through his system as he pushed himself ever-harder would drown out the pounding reality of a life no kid should ever have to lead.
Longtime Weekly contributor Vicki Hart turned me on to this story and it's a doozy. But first, some background. If one were able to quantify the out there-ness of a sport's enthusiasts, participants and fans and then put it in a solar system model, baseball would be around Mercury. Golf and tennis would be near Venus, while football, basketball, and hockey would be in the general vicinity of Earth. Near Mars' orbit would be horse racing and auto racing.
The asteroid belt would contain what's left of boxing and pro wrestling, plus that stupid-ass MMA stuff. (I swear, I could pull out half of my teeth, bang my head against the wall until my IQ was cut in half, and marry my sister and still not be white trash enough to want to watch MMA.)
We'll skip over the first outer planets and find bowling on Uranus and then out there, beyond the orbit of Neptune, is cycling. (I still believe in Pluto's planetness and it's only been 10 years since Pluto, with its elliptical orbit, slipped out beyond Neptune, anyway. I'll save Pluto in case something even stranger than cycling comes along, like maybe if a different judge determines that cheerleading is a sport, after all.)
Anyway, cyclists are out there. They wear Tchaikovsky shorts and use words like peloton, as though normal people would understand what they're saying. They even cheat funny, taking out their own blood and then putting it back in.
Cyclists here in Tucson are a hardy bunch, indeed. While the mild winters provide great cycling opportunities, the brutal summers can test even the fittest athletes, especially in a sport in which enthusiasts like to engage for hours—if not days—at a time. And then there are the seemingly predatory bad drivers who are unwilling to share the road with cyclists.
Still, they persist, riding around town, out into the desert and up into the mountains, pursuing that cyclist's high, where human and machine become one and all else fades into the background. Such were the people who would show up for the Shootout, a grueling ride/training session held on weekends by local competitive cyclists.
Thomas Jondall showed up at the Shootout one day on an old six-speed Schwinn and rode along in silence until he could no longer keep up with the hard-core riders. He would go as far as he could and then drop away and disappear, never saying a word to anybody.
By the time he was 12 years old, he was completing the ride. The regulars realized that he wasn't age-level good, he was a kid who was holding his own with hyper-conditioned adults. They tried to talk to him, but his answers were vague, at best. He never said exactly where he lived or with whom. When the subject of school was brought up, he said nothing at all.
Jondall gravitated toward Gary Evans, whose riding style and fierce independence earned him the nickname "The Gray Wolf." They started riding together and Evans, whose motto has always been "Attack the pack," found a kindred spirit. Evans eventually gave the kid a Trek 5900, an extra bike that Evans had that was more in line with the kid's ability.
The Shootout pack kept nosing around and found that Jondall was estranged from his mom and (sort of) lived with an aunt. He was often hungry and would sleep in the park to get away from the unsettling circumstances of his aunt's household. Pack members also noted that the kid wore the exact same shorts and short-sleeved jersey at all times, summer and winter.
The Pack began to look out for the one they called the Cub. Greg Hart (Vicki's husband) got Thomas into Edge (Charter) High School, which allowed him to work toward a diploma and train at the same time. Steve and Katie Jonsson, gut-sick over the prospect of a kid sleeping in the park, took him in and then eventually worked through the Child Protective Services maze to make the arrangement legal and permanent. Cycling coach Neil Stewart, after catching a glimpse of Jondall, broke his own rule of never coaching anybody under the age of 16. Within a few months, Jondall was one of only eight riders his age to reach the level of Category 2.
I called Jondall to do an interview before he left for Europe, but understandably, the kid parses out words the way George W. Bush used to hand out wisdom. His goal is to become a Pro Tour rider, and if he's overwhelmed by all the changes in his life, he's not letting on.
All he says about that is, "I used to ride just to get out. Now I ride because I want to."