Track and field: Future looking bright for Grant alum Wells
Seven years is a long time to be in college.
But a COVID year, a redshirt year due to injuries, and a gap year to care for his ailing father have caused Jonathan Wells to take the scenic route to college graduation.
But the bright side is that the 25-year-old Wells, who graduated from Grant High School in 2014, has used his extra time at the University of Illinois wisely, and he will leave there soon with his future all lined up.
Academically, Wells is finishing up his MBA, and already has a job with a health care company in the Chicago area as a product manager.
Athletically, the track star and six-time NCAA all-American in on the brink of reaching the pinnacle of his sport. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he qualified for the Olympic Trials and now will finally get his shot to compete for a spot on the U.S. Olympic track team starting June 22 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.
As a prep over the next two weeks, Wells, who last week became just the sixth athlete in Big Ten history to win both the high jump and the long jump in the same year at the Big Ten Conference meet, is getting ready for the NCAA regionals and nationals.
"It's been seven years that I've been associated with the University of Illinois," Wells, competing this spring for the Illini as a graduate student, said with a chuckle. "It's been a long time. But there have been injuries (toe, back, ankle) and surgeries and absences and sometimes, you feel like maybe people are counting you out when you've got that many gaps.
"It's a physical battle to come back from that. It's a mental battle. It's a lot of struggle and adversity, but it doesn't need to define you. Whether I make the Olympics or not, I know that I put in a lot of work and showed a lot of perseverance."
Wells, a three-time IHSA state champion in track, will be competing in the high jump at the Olympic Trials after registering a qualifying mark of 7 feet, 5 inches at a meet in Belarus in 2019. Before he heads to Oregon, Wells is also hoping to qualify for his other signature event, the long jump. With a personal best of 25 feet, 11 inches, he's about 4 inches from the Olympic Trials qualifying mark in the long jump.
"I'm right there," Wells said of his position in the long jump. "I think it's within reach (to make the Trials mark). I'm going to try."
Wells wants to make his dad Sean proud.
Sean (pronounced Seen) Wells died of cancer in 2019. Jonathan left Champaign and took the year off from school and from track to return to Lake County to help his mother, Frances, care for his father.
"It was something I wanted to do," Wells said "But people don't realize until they are in that situation how (involved) it is to care for someone. That's why I had to take the entire year off.
"My Dad was always big on track. He always told me and my brothers that track can open so many doors and opportunities."
Jonathan is the second of four track stars in the family.
Oldest brother Sean Jr., now 27, won Division II national titles in hurdles at Grand Valley State. Octavian Wells, a recent graduate of Loyola Chicago and a state champion at Grant, was a star in the 400 meters. And youngest brother Rocco is now finding his way in long jump and hurdles as a freshman at Grant.
"My family definitely has a history in track," Wells said. "I think the one thing we have all tried to do is compete to the best of our ability. To get to this level and be so close (to the Olympics) is extremely satisfying, but I'm also satisfied just knowing that I have done the best to my abilities."
Wells was doing that a long time ago.
Nick Nenni, who coached Wells in long jump and high jump at Grant, could see this kind of success coming for Wells, even back in high school.
"No question about it," Nenni said. "Jonathan never got rattled about anything. He was so good with the mental side of competing, so even-keel. But the physical part of it was also amazing. He's very tall at about 6-foot-3 but he's also strong. A lot of jumpers are tall and lean. He's tall and muscular and that gave him a quickness and explosiveness that a lot of kids at the high school level just don't have."
As a junior, Wells led the Grant boys to a fourth-place finish at state. He also competed in the hurdles and relays in high school.
"He had a career full of memories at Grant," said Tom Evans, who was the head track coach at Grant during Wells' career. "He did so many events for us. He was a team guy who would do anything he could for the team, and he still does. Whenever he's in town, he'll come talk to the team, which is really nice. I'm really thankful he still stays in touch. It speaks to his great personality, too."
Evans says that he and the rest of the Grant coaches are excited to track Wells at the Olympic Trials next month, and then hopefully at the Olympics as well.
It could be their last opportunity to do so, though.
Wells says that Olympics or not, this could be his last hurrah on the track.
"I've already got a job, and I'm going to need to transition into business full-time eventually so this could be it," Wells said. "I'll sit down with my family and make a decision, but whatever it is, I'll feel good about it.
"I've had great opportunities with track. I'm so thankful to all my coaches and teammates in high school and in college and to my family, and to Illinois for allowing me to come back and compete after COVID. There have been a lot of people who have had an impact on my unique journey."