The story of N.J. Olympic hopeful Leigh Jaynes-Provisor will inspire you
Leigh Jaynes-Provisor was on a backpacking trip with a youth group when a popular coach at Rancocas Valley Regional High issued a challenge that would change her life and set her on a path to the Olympics.
Didn’t he know about the hardships in her childhood? That her father, a troubled Vietnam War veteran, wasn’t part of her life? That her mother, overwhelmed with financial and emotional problems, had decided her children were better off in the child welfare system than in her home? Didn’t the wrestling coach understand that she had bounced from a psychiatric ward to group homes to foster families, a life that became so unbearable that, when she turned 16, she emancipated herself? And when that decision didn’t solve her problems, that she sometimes slept anywhere she could find in Mount Holly — on park benches, in motel rooms or even in her beat-up 1981 Toyota Corolla?
So that was why, months after that challenge from Bowker in the fall of 1998, Leigh Jaynes-Provisor showed up unannounced for the first day of wrestling practice. She didn’t know much about the sport, but the coach discovered how wrong his assessment was in her first match.
“She takes this kid down in 30 seconds,” Bowker said. “The kid blasted her with his elbow, knocking out one of her teeth. Well, she swatted the tooth right off the mat and continued to whoop that kid’s ass.
Now he wonders: Will one of his favorite high school wrestlers, an athlete whose toughness will never be questioned after you read her life story, have an Olympic medal hanging around her neck this time next summer? One year from now, the eyes of the world will turn to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Games, and Team USA will have a strong contingent of athletes from New Jersey marching into João Havelange Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies.
Some you probably know, like World Cup soccer star Carli Lloyd and gold-medal-winning wrestler Jordan Burroughs. Others are mostly anonymous to the general public, regular people whose stories are still untold as they spend their days waiting and training. Leigh Jaynes-Provisor — or LJ Provisor, as she calls herself on social media — falls into the latter category. She sat in the wrestling office of Columbia University during a recent training trip with her USA Wrestling teammates and told a story of abandonment, perseverance and, as she moves closer to her Olympic dream, forgiveness.
Her father, Clayton Jaynes, struggled with post traumatic stress disorder from his time in Vietnam and drug addiction, she said. When attempts to get him help failed, her mother, Karen Williams, left him soon after the birth of their daughter, but she struggled to raise Leigh and her brother, Michael, as a single mother. Jaynes-Provisor said her mother was underwater financially and suffered from serious mood swings. When raising two rebellious children became too much, Williams turned to the state for help — a decision she quickly came to regret.
“I signed up for a temporary placement that ended up being five years,” said Williams, who is now a seventh-grade teacher in Hamilton. “It was like losing a child, basically.”
For her daughter, it was the beginning of a harrowing childhood. Jaynes-Provisor said she was just 11 when she spent 58 days in a rehab center because social workers believed she was using drugs — an allegation, she said, that was not true.From there, she said she was placed in the psychiatric ward of a hospital, including one 24-hour stay in a padded room where her meals were slid through a slot in the door. She eventually was released back into her mother’s care, but the situation at home did not improve.
Finally, (the social workers) just said, ‘OK, your mom has relinquished custody of you, you’re going to be staying in the Stepping Stones Group Home,'” Jaynes-Provisor said. “And we were like, ‘What?’ The other girls at the Mount Laurel group home, Jaynes-Provisor said, “did some miserable things,” calling her names and ostracizing her from the group. She was angry at the world and struggled with trust issues.
“There were a lot of traumatic things that happened,” she said. “One day my mom came to try to get me back and they didn’t allow it. The cops assaulted her and said she was trespassing. I remember crying my eyes out — that’s my mom! They made it seem like it wasn’t healthy to go home. I didn’t believe it.”
Maybe the hardest part, Jaynes-Provisor said, was getting dropped off each morning at Rancocas Valley Regional High in Mount Holly in a beige 15-passenger van with government plates. She just wanted her classmates to see her as a normal kid, but that van felt like a symbol for the dysfunction in her life. She asked the driver to drop her off around the corner.
She couldn’t help but feel like her new life was more screwed up than her old one. That’s why she made a decision as she approached her 16th birthday: She was better off living on her own.
“I involved myself in literally everything that school had to offer,” she said. “I had to do good so I could get out. They don’t let you emancipate if you’re a hot mess. That was my goal. I really believed I could do better on my own then in this stressful environment with all these crazy people.”
She got a job at Burger King in Mount Holly. With help, she filled out the paper work to become an emancipated minor, and while her petition was granted, even that wasn’t an easy lifestyle. She lived with friends and their families, and when a living situation became uncomfortable, any place she could find.
“I stayed in the car. I slept on a bench. I stayed in a motel,” she said. “I was pretty much on my own, and between 16 and going to college, I got into the habit of running away from situations that were too hard for me to handle.”
But instead of running away from wrestling, maybe the most demanding sport there is, she found a community and sense of purpose. She would also find a path in life that would lead her to places she never expected.
Jaynes-Provisor sums up her one year as a high school wrestler like this: “I didn’t win anything.” Bowker disputes that. She won over a room filled with skeptical boys who, a few weeks into her career, became extremely protective of their new teammate.
“The only thing Leigh wanted coming in was to get treated like (crap), just like everybody else,” Bowker said. “She was the queen of the wrestling team.”
At the end of the season, the team raised money for her to attend a national tournament in Michigan. She finished sixth, which was good enough to get her photo in a USA Wrestling magazine.She figured that was the end of her career. But that summer, as she was working at Farias Surf Shop on Long Beach Island with Bowker and his wife, Eileen, the head coach from a new women’s wrestling team at Missouri Valley State College called the shop with a scholarship offer. She was off to Missouri to wrestle for one of the first women’s college programs in the country. Jaynes-Provisor didn’t know it at the time, but she was a pioneer of sorts for a sport that, while still not popular among girls, has grown considerably. Just 800 girls wrestled in U.S. high schools in 1994 compared to nearly 10,000 today, according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association, with 24 collegiate programs.
Jaynes-Provisor struggled on and off the mat in Missouri at first, and then in her junior year she made another life-changing decision: She enlisted in the Army and commissioned for officer through the ROTC program, which allowed her to get a master’s degree in business management at nearby Lindenwood University. She moved to Colorado Springs after college to train full time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and, in 2004, made history, wrestling in the first women’s match at the U.S. Olympic trials. She won that match but finished sixth overall. She missed out on her Olympic dream again in 2008 when she took fourth in the trials, faltering after she beat the No. 1 seed. Four years later, she was the No. 1 seed in the 55 kilogram weight class. “Everyone was like, ‘She’s going to make the Olympic team. This is her time,'” Jaynes-Provisor said.
It was the result of a tactical mistake, trying to make the team at a weight class (55 kilograms, or 121 pounds) that was unrealistic for her 5-foot-7 frame. Forced to wrestle in a higher weight class, she failed to qualify for the Olympics again.
Devastated, she began to wonder: Were the unresolved issues from her childhood holding her back? She had to find a way to get into the right place mentally to be a champion.
“Part of me felt like I didn’t deserve it,” she said. “I think a lot of my background and my past had to do with whether I was worthy or not. There was just these issues that were underlying. I just felt like I had to take a step back and really, really deal with it and accept it, do whatever I had to do to move forward.”
Clayton Jaynes knows he wasn’t a good father. “That’s a cross I have to bear the rest of my life,” he said. He had a brutal childhood himself, surrounded by violence, and he enlisted in the Army to fight in Vietnam. He was 17½ when he did, and it was an experience he refuses to talk about.
“I have a lot of regrets,” he said over the phone from his home in Arizona. “I could have been a better father to both of my kids. I’m not trying to make excuses. There is no excuse. I feel that today, I can be all that I can be to her and my family.
“I forgive you for everything you did and everything you weren’t,” Jaynes-Provisor told him, welcoming him into her family. She and her mother still have a complicated relationship, but Karen Williams is also part of her life now.
That life, Jaynes-Provisor said, is filled with joy and promise. She and her husband, fellow Team USA wrestler Ben Provisor, had a baby girl in 2013. Evelyn is now 2 and has given her mother another level of perspective. Jaynes-Provisor is a captain in the Army now with 14 years of service under her belt, and on the side, she’s putting her business degree to good use with a line of singlets designed for girls. Meanwhile, she is peaking in her sport after many in the wrestling community had counted her out. It was hard to blame the doubters. She had taken a year off, needed to lose 50 pounds of weight from the pregnancy and, at 34, her athletic prime was behind her.
Something changed in January. Jaynes-Provisor won one match, then another, and then a tournament. She won the prestigious U.S. Open and then, against a longtime rival named Jennifer Page, found herself on the brink of a devastating loss in the World Team Trials.
“I had a devil on one shoulder telling me, ‘You can go home. You can spend time with your daughter. You can be a mommy,’ she said. “On the other, it was saying, ‘No. CRUSH HER!'”
She held on for the victory, celebrating the moment with her mother. The World Championships are in Las Vegas next month, which means her father can drive up with his service dog, Gunner, and watch her wrestle for the first time. Bowker will be there, too.
“One of the best lessons in Leigh’s story is that you can use your past as an excuse for your future,” Bowker said, “or you can put it behind you and chase your own destiny.”
Winning a world title won’t be easy, and even if she does, she’ll have to wrestle her way on to the Olympic team next year. But Jaynes-Provisor has never been in a better place, athletically and mentally, to take on a challenge.
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