It’s a cliché that sports can take you places that otherwise you would never go. That axiom has never been truer than in the case of Leora “Sam” Jones. Growing up near Mount Olive, Jones thought “my horizons were in North Carolina. I would probably live my life here.” Instead, Jones became a member of the United States Women’s Team Handball Olympic squad. Not once. Not twice. But three times.
Jones was “crazy about sports” while growing up. She starred in basketball at Southern Wayne High School. Jones earned a basketball scholarship to Louisburg Junior College. After two seasons in Louisburg, Jones went to East Carolina University in 1980. Jones was one of the top players in school history. She led the Lady Pirates to a 40-17 mark over two seasons and a spot in the 1982 NCAA Tournament. Jones averaged 16 points per game at ECU.
Jones was an assistant coach for ECU in the summer of 1982. The school hosted the National Sports Festival’s tryouts for the South squad in the sport of team handball. Jones had no experience in the sport. In fact, she knew nothing about it.
But team handball-which has been described as a blend of basketball, soccer, and hockey-rewards many of the same skills as basketball. Team handball officials were “looking for top athletes that could learn the sport. I guess I qualified.”
Did she ever. Jones not only made the South team but also was invited to join the national team. She went on a steep learning curve. Two years after being introduced to the sport, Jones was playing for the United States team in the 1984 Olympics.
She was stunning. Jones scored 32 goals in the ’84 games, a total surpassed by only four players. The United States team tied for fourth place, narrowly missing a medal. The 1984 games remain the highlight of her career. “Nobody expected us to do anything. We weren’t expected to win a game but we proved we could play with anybody.”
Jones has only one regret. “I was playing a new sport. I think I stuck to the called plays too much. I had opportunities to score a lot more goals, I just wasn’t confident enough to take the chances.”
She rectified her lack of experience by playing professionally in Europe, where team handball is enormously popular. “The best players in the world were there. They were a step ahead of our players. I knew that if I was going to get better, I was going to have to play at their level.”
Jones got better. Three times she was voted United States team handball Federation Athlete of the Year. Jones led the United States to a gold medal in the 1987 Pan American Games. She was the second-leading scorer in the Seoul Olympics in 1988 but the U.S. team finished a disappointing seventh. Jones briefly retired but came back for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The United States finished sixth.
Jones retired after the 1992 games, widely regarded as one of the top team handball players in United States history. Jones lives in Raleigh and works for United Parcel Services. She regards her selection to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame as “ a tremendous honor. I’ve traveled around the world and back but it doesn’t get any better than being honored by your native state.”
by Jim Sumner
May 20, 2004
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