BEIJING - When the puck drops for the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team against Canada for its first Paralympics matchup, six players will be making their Paralympics debut. One of those players is an up-and-coming talent in the program in 19-year-old Malik Jones.
When the Aurora, Colo. native takes the ice for the first time, he will be fulfilling a near-lifelong dream of playing in the Paralympics— a goal he has had since he said he was about seven years old.
“My excitement level is high,” said Jones. “I’m so excited to get to play and get to this test. We’ve been working a lot in residency and just put that to work and experience the Paralympics, I’m just so excited.”
Jones credits his grandmother for getting him into sled hockey when he was about seven. He had been playing other adaptive sports — mainly cycling — and she was pushing him to do more and expand into other sports. In came sled hockey. She found a local program and asked if he wanted to go and the rest was history.
“I went out on the ice, they got me in a sled and boom. I was just out on the ice and ever since then I have had so much fun.
“Everyone was so nice [when I started]. They welcomed me and I just kept going.”
You hear stories a lot of players first getting in their sleds. From players who are getting into sled hockey for the first time to NHL players and elite-level athletes hopping in to try it out, it seems that most people struggle their first time in their sled.
Not Malik Jones. He said he was pretty much a natural when he got in the sled for the first time. Not bad for a seven-year-old.
“When I first started, I was just able to skate really easily. Turning was easy, and I just felt like a natural. I heard stories of people saying I was going around fast.”
The toughest part for him, he said, was his grip. Jones has less than five fingers on each of his hand, so as a young kid, it was hard for him to have a strong enough grip to hold onto his sticks. He said people would have to tape his hands to the stick to help him.
That was one thing he had to work on, and as he got older, that obstacle was resolved.
“My dream was to play at this level. So I just had to get my grip right. I worked on it as much as I could and then eventually I didn’t need to tape anymore.”
Jones points to a former member of the team and fellow Coloradan, Nikko Landeros, as an inspiration for him and someone he looked up to when he was first starting to play. Jones looked to him as a mentor, and started watching more of his games to gain a better understanding of sled hockey.
He also looked up to fellow teammates Declan Farmer and Brody Roybal, experienced vets on the team that joined the U.S. National Sled Team and U.S. Paralympic Sled Team when they were young, just like Jones. He took a lot from the month-long residency program to help prepare him for these Games.
“I just learned how certain guys went about their day-to-day, and it really opened my eyes because I want to be like that when I have more years on the team. It just helped me develop better character and carry myself in a better way.”
The residency program has also opened the eyes of his teammates and coaching staff, who can see the skill and how big of an impact he can have on this team.
“If you watched him and you watch all the guys where you would never dream that this was you know, he'd only been on the team for a few months or whatever the case is, he just does so many things right.
“He's really matured so much in the last year. His skill set is such again, that he's a he's, he's a guy who can create opportunities and create extra touches for some of our players, whatever, which is important. He's a pass first guy, meaning he's looking to find someone and just give them put them in a better situation. And that's a unique skill.”
Jones also recognizes that impact being a Black athlete when he takes the ice in Beijing.
“I definitely feel pride. That’s a big accomplishment to be a Black athlete on the world's largest stage. That’s a big accomplishment in my book, so I’m glad I can represent my race.”
From a seven-year-old with a dream to a dream recognized, Jones could not be more excited to don the U.S. jersey at the Games.
“It means a lot, it’s a dream I’ve had since I was seven. To be on this team and get all the support, it just means the world. I love being on this team, representing my country and wearing the red, white and blue.”