Benzie Phenom's Story Continuing to Unfold on Track

By Tom Spencer
Special for MHSAA.com

May 14, 2021

As the phrase “history in the making” originated, someone simply had to know there would be a long-distance runner in Northern Michigan named Hunter Jones.

Arguably, he is history in the making.

And, track enthusiasts have a chance to preview some of the history the Benzie Central High School runner will make. Emphasis on will. He already has made history in so many ways.

He is only a sophomore. And, the history he makes will have at least one asterisk —for the 2020 Michigan high school track season that wasn’t.

The Benzie track team is offering its next preview glimpses of history-making Monday at the Titan Last Chance Meet at Traverse City West. The next opportunities after that will be on the Benzie track, during the Northwest Conference meet May 21 and the MHSAA Regionals on May 25.

This history-in-the-making story to watch over the next month is Jones’ likely accomplishment of winning his first MHSAA individual track championship June 5 at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Finals at Jenison High School. Perhaps the only reason he hasn’t achieved that first title before is COVID-19 cancelled his freshman season.

Many onlookers believe Jones will do that in the 800. They also believe after re-hydrating, resting, stretching and foam rolling, he’ll hit the track again shortly after and win another state title in the 1,600.

And, they further believe, he’ll write even more history after a brief recovery to win the 3,200 and finish with three Finals championships in one day.

Benzie Central boys track & fieldJones is preparing for the Finals by competing is all three of those events in the same day in the remaining meets. He and his coaches are challenging him by adding a 400 in all of those meets including the Finals.

He may run the 1,600 relay in the Finals should his team qualify. So four state championships are not out of the question. He tried the four events earlier this week and narrowly missed winning all four in an eight-team meet on Benzie’s track. He started the open 400 a bit slow and finished less than one second behind Kingsley’s Gage Hessem.

“I don’t know if anybody — I don’t know if I — truly, truly appreciate what this kid is,” acknowledged Asa Kelly, the Huskies’ longtime distance coach and a former college runner. “We knew he was going to be good for a long time, but how good is the question, right?

“We’ve had multiple state champions and loads of all-state kids, but nobody quite like him,” added Kelly, who has coached the boys cross country team to three Division 3 Finals titles. “He’s got this insatiable desire to win.”

At the age of 16, Jones is already in the history books. He owns school, meet and event records. He also has cross country course records. When he runs cross country in the fall, he’ll be pursuing a third Finals championship to go with his Lower Peninsula Division 3 titles won as a freshman and sophomore.

He is also a national champion. He won the sophomore division in the 3,200 of the National Scholastic Athletic Federation indoor track event in Virginia this spring.

“I want to be a state champion in at least three events,” Jones offered as one of his goals for his first track season. “It doesn’t matter what it is – at least three events.

“I have to run four events, so I think it will be challenging for me to go to each event and try to win,” he continued. “I think it is a good goal to try to win those.”

His others goals for this season? He wants to break the school records in the 800 and 1,600. He broke the school record in 3,200 last week in Farmington running an 8:59.

Benzie Central boys cross countryAnother of his Benzie coaches, Traci Knudsen Kelly, has no doubt Jones will he will win three Division 3 Finals championships this June. She should know. She competed in the Big Ten as a member of the Indiana University cross country, indoor and outdoor track teams after setting records and winning state titles in 400, 800 and 1,600 runs at Suttons Bay High School.

“It’s a rare kid that comes along like him,” she noted. “I mean, I have never seen a high school kid like that.

“Between just the internal drive ... the will to win, the work ethic ... I mean, he’s the whole package.”

Jones’ brother Rick and sister Sarah are among the standouts in Benzie’s rich track and cross country past.  Hunter recalls watching his siblings compete, and as he started running he was winning races as a second grader against fifth and sixth graders.

“I used to be deathly scared of racing, and I would almost cry before races,” Jones recalled. “It was weird going up against people that were like double my height.”

Not so anymore for the decorated runner whose future may not have any limits.

“The fact that he is sophomore is what a lot of people forget,” said Asa Kelly. “He is so young yet, and he’s got so much in front of him.”

Yup, history in the making.

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at tomspencer@chartermi.net with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Benzie Central’s Hunter Jones warms up during a track meet this season. (Middle) Jones, with Benzie coaches Asa Kelly, left, and Traci Knudsen Kelly. (Below) Jones crosses the finish line during the Cross Country Finals at Michigan International Speedway. (Track photos by Tom Spencer. Cross country photo courtesy of Benzie Central's cross country program.)

Lessons Learned on Track Have Jibowu's Business Surging to Quick Success

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

August 1, 2022

Athletics showed Soj Jibowu just how far he could push himself.

All the time spent on the track, working to become the state’s best high school 400-meter runner, and then more than that, taught him to stretch beyond what he thought were his limits.

So, when it came time to make a decision on whether to jump fully into his apparel company, Varlo, or keep it as a part-time side venture, the 2001 Saginaw Heritage graduate knew he could take himself to another level if needed.

Jibowu is the founder and CEO of Varlo, a clothing company that specializes in outfitting triathletes, but also offers casual wear for men and women. The company is just over three years old, but its clientele includes hundreds of triathletes, eight professionals, three NCAA programs and even hospitals. Merchandise is sold in eight countries.

All of that is validation for Jibowu, who took the leap to pursuing the company full-time just one year into its existence.

“When I resigned (from a medical sales job) to do this full-time, my wife was pregnant with our second child, my daughter wasn’t even walking yet,” said Jibowu, who now lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., with his wife and two young children. “Where was my state of mind to leave my very comfortable, high-paying job to pursue this – to sell clothes?”

His mind was in the same place that helped him reach tremendous heights as a runner, both at Heritage and Central Michigan University.

Jibowu, who was born in Nigeria and spent much of his childhood in Huntsville, Ala., was part of some incredible Heritage teams. He graduated a year behind eventual NFL safety Stuart Schweigert, who he ran with on the Finals-winning 1,600 relay in 2000. Another member of that relay was Derold Sligh, who won the 400-meter Finals title that year, setting the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals record in the process. The Hawks were LP Division 1 runners-up as a team that season.

“I ran track when I was younger, and I was terrible,” Jibowu said. “In high school, if I look back at it, I probably would have called it impostor syndrome. I think that was me up until maybe like somewhere in my senior year when I started to think, ‘I’m pretty fast.’ … I had so many dominant people around me, in my mind, I was still the slow guy.”

Soj JibowuAs a senior, Jibowu erased that self-doubt. He led Heritage to its first, and still only, Division 1 Finals title, running the 400 in 48.28 and breaking the record Sligh had set the year prior.

It was working to get to that point that Jibowu still credits with his ability to push himself in all things.

“I preach this all the time: if you have the ability to be involved in sports at a young age, do it,” Jibowu said. “It’s a gift, first of all. You don’t know any better when you’re young, you think you’re just training your body, but what’s really, truly occurring is you’re training your mind and building discipline. You’re building your character as far as who you are as a person. What is your will? How far are you willing to push? Am I able to be coached? Am I able to learn? Am I able to lose over and over again and keep going? Am I able to navigate to feel what it’s like to win? What you’re truly developing is how to manage and handle life.”

Jibowu said he didn’t finalize his college decision until late in the process, as he had to work on his test scores into the summer. While at CMU, he majored in biomedical science and chemistry, and he excelled, admitting he was a much better student in college than in high school.

He was also reunited with Sligh on the Chippewas track team, and had a successful career. He was regularly within the top five in the 200 and 400 in the Mid-American Conference, and won a MAC title in the 400 at the 2004 indoor championships. His personal bests in the races were 21.19 and 46.81, respectively. 
After graduating from CMU, Jibowu began working as a pharmaceutical rep, then moved into medical sales.

While he remained active, it wasn’t until he took a trip to Chicago that he discovered triathlons.

“I remember seeing these really cool bikes and these really fit people, and then they jumped into Lake Michigan,” he said. “And I didn’t know that was possible, because I didn’t grow up swimming. I didn’t know that volume of people knew how to swim like that. Then they get out of Lake Michigan, jump on their bikes and they’re flying. Then they’re sprinting a 6K and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, these guys are the real freaking deal.’ I was hooked and wanted to start competing.”

As he began competing, the wheels for his current venture began turning. At this point, Jibowu was living out east and had worked for a pair of successful start-ups in the medical industry. That helped give him knowledge, and confidence, to make his own moves.

“I had always been into clothes and fashion, and how you express yourself with what you wear,” Jibowu said. “There was an opportunity there. The sport of triathlon is as old as me; it started in (1983). That’s a baby. That’s like basketball without the 3-point line. There’s so much opportunity for innovation.”

With that, Varlo was born, and it has since thrived, with Jibowu and the lessons he learned on a track in Saginaw paving the way.

“If you are in high school and have the ability to be in a sport, it’s a gift,” he said. “At that young of an age, truly learning to manage the trials and tribulations of life. That is a gift.”

2021-22 Made in Michigan

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June 30: Hrynewich's Star Continuing to Rise with Olympic, Pro Sports Arrivals - Read

PHOTOS (Top) At left, Heritage’s Soj Jibowu wins the 400 meters during the 2001 Saginaw Valley League championship meet. At right, Jibowu is the founder and CEO of the Varlo clothing company. (Middle) Jibowu’s company specializes in outfitting triathletes, and he has taken up the sport after a successful college track & field career. (Heritage photo courtesy of Saginaw News/MLive; current photos courtesy of Soj Jibowu.)