Evanston coach reflects on half a century in gymnastics

By Tim Penman

Four months before his retirement, Chester Jones casually leans over a balance beam and watches his gymnasts take runs at vault inside Evanston High School’s practice area. Jones is relaxed, calling out words of encouragement to each girl in his slight Southern accent after they take turns springing off the board and flipping in the air.

“I’ve coached for almost 50 years,” Jones says. “I have done every possible thing that I could have done to fulfill my life, but it’s time somebody else comes in and starts theirs.”

Senior gymnast Clara Gruger, 17, receives advice from Jones on how to finish vault attempts. Jones says he was a floor and vault "specialist" during his days as a competitor. Photo courtesy of Tim Penman/MEDILL
Senior gymnast Clara Gruger, 17, receives advice from Jones on how to finish vault attempts. Jones says he was a floor and vault “specialist” during his days as a competitor. (Tim Penman/Medill)

Jones has been a fixture at Evanston since 1993, when he took over both boys’ and girls’ gymnastics from former coach Vicky Munch, who went on to become a high school gymnastics judge. He immediately instituted a feeder program and won two regional titles in the next seven years as well as teaching an adventure education class centered on camping trips and indoor rock climbing.

Now, at age 64, Jones says he is ready to step away in order to spend more time with his family and ride his motorcycle more.

As a coach, Jones is known for his ability to push his gymnasts to their highest levels. He says he especially enjoys challenging them to always learn new tricks and routines. While he realizes that most of his boys and girls will not go on to major college programs but rather participate in club gymnastics at most, Jones said he still disciplines them to constantly improve.

Munch said Jones’ down-to-earth approach works.

“He wants the best for the kids,” Munch says. “He tries to push them to reach the best that they can be. He does it through encouragement, through sarcasm, or he will just be strict.”

“One of the things that I think is very special about him,” says senior co-captain Lucy Bowser, “is that even though we may not be where he wants us to be, he never stops believing in us.”

Jones spotting a senior.
Jones spots senior co-captain Lucy Bowser on high bar inside Evanston’s practice gym. He has sustained multiple injuries while spotting, including a torn bicep. (Tim Penman/Medill)

Jones gets a lot of freshmen with no prior gymnastics experience. He tells them to have fun, but to also stay disciplined. This shows during practice, as Jones laughs with the girls over various miscues before offering instructive advice on where to better position their hands or how to generate the most air off the springboard.

“You’ve gotta have fun in this sport because it’s too demanding,” Jones says. “But you have to draw a line, you have to advance your skills.”

Jones grew up on a farm in Big Spring, Texas, where at age 5 he taught himself how to “tumble.” While attending the circus with his family, Jones says he saw clowns performing various acrobatics and thought that it “looked like fun.” He returned home and soon started playing around in a plowed cornfield.

“I did my first double back [flip] at 7 years old in the cornfield,” Jones says. “I don’t know how many times I ripped my hands apart. I could swing through trees, just like Tarzan.”

Since there was a lack of gymnastics in his area when he was growing up, Jones continued to be strictly self-taught all the way up until college. After his family moved to Springdale, Arkansas, Jones went door-to-door, teaching tumbling for 25 cents an hour in 1961 and ‘62. After he bought his first trampoline, Jones had pupils over to his house, teaching them aerials for 50 cents an hour.

“That’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to be,” Jones says.

In high school, Jones actually started the gymnastics team, serving as both coach and competitor. His team would perform at school assemblies, earning just enough money to help pay for new gym equipment.

While instructing on the side, Jones attended three different colleges in New Mexico and excelled in both floor and vault. He dislocated his shoulder after slipping off high bar in 1972, and missed the Pan American Games because of it. Jones would have recurring shoulder issues throughout his career.

“I always think [about] the ‘what if’ question,” Jones says. “What if I didn’t get hurt? Was I good enough to make it at the time? You never know. My life went in a different direction.”

While he wasn’t the same after the incident, the self-taught gymnast says he always had the drive for coaching. He worked various jobs, including cutting steel plates for the electric company at one point, but always saved time for coaching on the weekends.

In the early 60s, Jones went door-to-door, teaching tumbling for 25 cents an hour.

Jones then served in the military from 1969 to 1973, going to Vietnam as a Navy Seal. Before the war, he says he went to YMCAs in the various ports he visited in order to help stationed personnel’s kids learn how to do gymnastics.

It was during the ‘70s that Jones says he really started to build his skills as a coach. He became an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas and helped with the early development of the gymnastics program there. He also trained Olympic gymnast Kathy Howard during summer workouts. He then started traveling around to different colleges to train with different coaches and learn what he could do to become a better instructor.

“A lot of different people made me the type of coach I am,” Jones says. “But coach Ross Black from New Mexico was the most influential. He just had a personality and the maturity about working with kids. He could talk to anybody, and he could get you to do anything.”

A lot of those tendencies rubbed off on Jones. Just by watching him, it is easy to tell he has a special way of interacting with the gymnasts.

“He’s able to connect with the kids at a level most adults can’t,” says Evanston athletic director Christopher Livatino. “In a way, he’s like a big kid himself, but he’s got the discipline to hold the kids accountable and the knowledge to get them to the next level they need to be at.”

Key components to his coaching include building up trust, being brutally honest, and using humor and sarcasm, according to Livatino. Jones can be very intense during practice, but at meets he is typically laid-back.

New Trier High School girls’ gymnastics coach Jennifer Pistorius has noticed a slight change in Jones’ coaching style over the years.

“I just remember when he first started coaching he was maybe a little tougher on the girls,” Pistorius says. “He did a lot more conditioning and training, and maybe his style was a little more strict rather than more laid-back.”

Girls’ gymnastics assistant coach Meghan Gordon may be next in line to take over as head coach. She has worked closely with Chester over the past six years and says she enjoys how personable and humorous he is.

Jones and girls' gymnastics assistant coach Meghan Gordon look on as girls practice floor exercises. (Tim Penman/Medill)
Jones and girls’ gymnastics assistant coach Meghan Gordon look on as girls practice floor exercises. (Tim Penman/Medill)

To honor the longtime coach, the John Brinkworth-Munch gymnastics meet on Jan. 3 was renamed the “Chester Jones Invitational.” At the Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame luncheon on Feb. 21, Jones is set to receive the Steve Holmbeck Service Award for a high school coaching career that spanned 22 years.

For Jones, it is, and always will be, about the relationships he has built.

“I hear more from kids who have gone away that the biggest thing they remember of me is my caring,” Jones says. “They were taught how to care by watching me. That I’m not sure I would have ever thought about, but I guess when you care for as many kids as I have, it’s got to rub off.”

Photo at top: Evanston gymnastics coach Chester Jones watches one of his girls take a run at vault. (Tim Penman/Medill)