Even though swimming was part of Helena Jones' life from an early age, competitive success did not come quickly for the Wilsonville senior.
In fact, Jones had never qualified for a state meet until after she moved from Georgia to Oregon in junior high.
“I wasn't the best swimmer, but I really loved it,” Jones said. “That's all that really mattered. My parents loved swimming, and they passed it down to me. I didn't realize I had a future in swimming until probably high school.”
It didn't take long for Jones, who joined Lake Oswego Swim Club as an eighth-grader, to make her presence felt in her new home state. As a freshman at West Linn, she won the 6A title in the 100-yard freestyle and was second in the 50 freestyle to Aloha's Kaitlyn Dobler, who set a OSAA meet record in the race.
She transferred to 5A Wilsonville as a sophomore, and after the 2021 state meet was canceled, she won state titles in the 50 and 100 freestyle last season, setting 5A meet records of 22.96 and 49.83 seconds.
Wilsonville coach Deb Mandeville said Jones is the best freestyle swimmer she has coached in her 30-plus year career.
“And I've had good freestylers before,” Mandeville said. “She holds a lot of water in her stroke. She just holds that water and moves it efficiently. That's what makes her fast.”
Jones appears primed to take it up a notch for her senior season, if her performance in the Speedo Winter Junior Championships West meet in Austin, Texas, in early December is any indication. She recorded personal bests of 22.59 and 49.36, marking vast improvement from where she finished the last high school season.
The best meet of her career has bolstered her surging confidence, which has been the key to unlocking her vast potential.
“I would say I'm in a better space mentally, which makes it a lot better,” she said. “It definitely makes it harder to swim when you're nervous. It's nice to go into a race, gaining confidence in practice. You don't have nerves when you go out for a meet.”
Mandeville is intrigued by the possibilities for Jones this season.
“It just made us real excited to see what she could do in February as far as possible records,” Mandeville said. “She's a fierce competitor. She really likes it when there's prelims and finals because she rises to the occasion.”
Jones' best time in the 100 freestyle would be good enough to break the OSAA meet record (for all classifications) of 49.46, set by Centennial's Jamie Stone in 2016. In the 50 freestyle, though, she still is a ways off the record set by Dobler, who swam 22.30 in 2020.
Jones said she hasn't set any goals for the season, though, mostly because she has yet to settle on her events.
“I feel like whatever I swim at state, I'll try to go for whatever record is available,” she said. “A state record is always nice. It depends on what Deb wants me to do this season. It's all up in the air right now.”
Several other events are possible, except the breaststroke, according to Jones.
“I'm definitely not a breaststroker,” she said with a laugh. “I think it would be funny for everybody if I swam the 100 breast. It's very ugly. I've been compared to a turtle.”
In the big picture, Jones is working toward an Olympic Trial qualifying time in the 50-meter freestyle. The standard is 25.69 and her best is 26.03, recorded in May 2021.
“That's a big goal for me,” she said. “That would be like a dream come true.”
Jones moved to Oregon in 2018 with her parents, Jeff and Paige, and sister Marin, now a junior at Wilsonville. She quickly adapted to her new home.
“I love it,” she said. “I love the summer. I'm not the biggest fan of the rain, but the summer makes up for it.”
Jones plans to move back, however, after signing a letter of intent with Georgia. She will be attending college in Athens, about an hour away from relatives in Atlanta.
“There aren't really a whole bunch of D-I swimming opportunities in Oregon,” said Jones, whose father swam for Bloomsburg University, a Division II school in Pennsylvania. “I knew if I wanted to be super close to family, the best way I could do that was going to Georgia. Georgia has a great history of success in and outside of the pool, so I felt like it was a no-brainer.”
The decision was met favorably by her parents.
“My mom was so happy,” Jones said. “She's already told me she's going to find any excuse she can to come down, because she gets to see everybody in one trip.”