Blessed with a tireless work ethic and a natural gift for athletics, Joshua Honeycutt scaled to heights most Iolans would never have dreamed possible.
The 2007 Iola High School graduate’s stellar professional track and field triple-jumping career included multiple gold medals at the collegiate level, two near-misses at qualifying for the Summer Olympics, a national championship as a professional, and the opportunity to compete against the greatest athletes in the world.
Now retired — at least in the athletic realm — Honeycutt, 31, is able to reflect on his endeavors, and the inherent life lessons one inevitably obtains while being whisked across the globe in a quest for golden glory.
Honeycutt sat down for an extended telephone interview from his home in Phoenix with the Register’s Tim Stauffer on myriad topics, from how the drive to succeed can be both a blessing and a curse, to his perspective on growing up as a standout athlete — and one of the few African-Americans in his class — in a predominantly white and rural part of the country.
HONEYCUTT describes his childhood in Iola as best encapsulated by the 1993 coming-of-age sports movie “The Sandlot,” where afternoons more often than not were at the ball field, or the basketball court, or inevitably, the swimming pool.
“I wouldn’t change my childhood or my upbringing for anything,” he said.
It soon became evident that Honeycutt was anything but a run-of-the-mill athlete.
IHS track coach Marv Smith convinced Honeycutt to take up the triple jump as a sophomore, even though he’d never attempted it before.
“Marv thought I’d be good at it,” Honeycutt recalled.
Within a year, Honeycutt held the IHS school record; by his junior year, he was a state champion.
Honeycutt’s senior year was shaping up for even greater heights. He had set a Southeast Kansas League record, and was ranked as the top triple jumper in the state, in all classes.
But a senior prank gone awry just days before graduation led to Honeycutt’s exclusion from the state meet.
“It was kind of rough,” he said. “I enjoyed the senior prank a lot, but we went too far, for sure.”
By then, Honeycutt had signed to continue his schooling — and training — at Emporia State University, where he became a seven-time NCAA Division II All-American and 11-time MIAA champion for the Hornets.
He won gold in both the indoor (2009) and outdoor (2011) national championships.
After college, Honeycutt moved to Phoenix, “where I pretty much had nothing. I had no jobs, just an ambition to try to make the Olympic team,” he said.
Then, after missing out on an Olympic trials bid by one place in 2012, Honeycutt followed that up by winning the 2013 USA Indoor Track & Field Championships.
The lifestyle was anything but luxurious. Honeycutt worked part-time jobs, “just making ends meet, just to be able to train, to be able to run.
“That’s just how it was,” he continued. “We’d get the cheapest apartment possible, splitting the rent, eating rice all the time.”
Winning the national title brought a bit more in terms of financial rewards. He received appearance fees to travel to meets, visiting Costa Rica, Jamaica, Aanda or the Cayman Islands.
As Honeycutt’s success grew, so did the pressure — and so did the level of competition, where competing against other national record-holders and Olympic gold medalists became commonplace.
“That’s the weird part about it,” he said. “There are people I’ve studied to get better in my event, and I’ve watched their videos. Now, I’m competing against them.”
PERHAPS it’s natural that Honeycutt’s greatest lessons derived from such lofty ambitions were when he fell short of gold.
For one, there’s always someone better.
If all the stars were aligned, Honeycutt could reach his goal of 55 or 56 feet.
“And then the guy right in front of me jumps 58 feet,” he said. “Mentally, it does something to you. It takes you to a place of a lot of self-doubt.”
That’s where the true growth begins, he notes.
“Can it take you to a place where you focus solely on your lane?” he asks. “Can you focus on what you need to do better?”
He credits his former coaches as giving him the mental tools to succeed.
“I figured out a lot about myself,” Honeycutt said. “A lot of it was, I would fold if I wasn’t a favorite to win, because winning determined my identity in a lot of ways.”
Then came the epiphany.
“As I figured out who I was, I can honestly say my competitiveness diminished,” Honeycutt said. “That’s because for so much of my life, I was competing for the wrong reasons. It was not for excellence, but to be better. That’s a pride thing.
“You can compete from two places,” he continued. “A majority of athletes compete from a place of insecurity, having to prove their value based on their performance.
“But some athletes compete out of a place of wholeness, where it’s like, ‘I know this game doesn’t matter, this competition doesn’t matter. My value isn’t determined by this. I can give it my all, because I know nothing really depends on it.’”
Those athletes are the freest, he concluded. “They aren’t damaged when things don’t go their way, and they lose and they don’t take it as a slight against them as a person.”
THAT SAID, Honeycutt cherishes the role sports played in his life, win or lose.
“Sports taught me perseverance,” he said. “I would have never thought growing up in Iola I would be traveling around the world to compete.
“Sports give you that hope,” he continued. “That’s why you get excited when the Chiefs win the Super Bowl. There’s a hope of breaking through the impossible. That’s key in society and for kids, to see through it all, even if we fail 1,000 times, don’t give up that hope. You never know what that’s going to bring.”
Nowhere is that more evident than on the track.
“It instills a hope that the system isn’t rigged,” Honeycutt said. “Even if you don’t win, you might get a personal best. It’s you and a clock, or a tape measure. It’s just you and that thing.
“It’s you vs. yourself.”
HONEYCUTT never gave much thought to growing up as one of only a few Black children in Iola. There were glimmers when he entered high school.
“Certain girls couldn’t date me,” he recalled. “I don’t think it was in my mind. That was just my hometown, just how things are.”
It wasn’t until he entered college that Honeycutt learned more perspective.
“I’m still a small-town kid from Iola,” he said. “My experience as a Black person is totally different from someone from the inner city of Phoenix.”
Honeycutt credits his parents, Phillip and Gina, for his upbringing.
“My mom made sure I wasn’t just a dumb jock,” he said, insisting he partake in school plays, join the choir, make the honor roll.
Without realizing it, Honeycutt realized he was “expelling the stereotype of what being a Black person is.”
Even now, as racial tensions are spiking across the country, Honeycutt is not shy about engaging in “uncomfortable discussions.”
“I know I can empathize,” Honeycutt said. “I know everybody who votes for Trump is not a racist. They supported me, they loved me.”
In the same vein, he understands many folks from his hometown also haven’t ventured out to other parts of the world, to learn the experiences of minorities.
In his blog, Honeycutt wrote in May about one occasion in which he was training in a residential Phoenix neighborhood, when he was confronted by an older white woman out walking her dog, demanding to know if Honeycutt lived in the area.
“I know the rebuttals that are going to come, ‘You don’t know if she approached you because you are Black,’ and you are right, I don’t know.” he wrote. “But during this same season of time, my wife (who is white) jogged through the neighborhood frequently and had never been stopped and asked any of these types of questions. On top of that, my experiences have taught me that this line-up of questioning comes from fragile insecurity of whiteness that flares up around anyone with darker skin.”
“I can understand the perspective that’s different, from both sides,” he said. “Sometimes that puts me in uncomfortable situations. But it’s a blessing to help people try to empathize with a people, group or an area they’re just not familiar with.
“We’re all ignorant in some ways, but we all have experiences that lead us to believe things the way that we believe them,” Honeycutt continued. “If we don’t realize this person’s experience leads them to think that way, and we just dismiss it, we’re doing ourselves a disservice because that person is going to do the same thing to you. And that leads us nowhere.”
Which led to another occasion, when living in Hays, that Honeycutt recounted being accosted by three men in a vehicle who shouted a racial epithet at Honeycutt and his wife while they walked down the street.
“I wish I could describe the amount of fear and anger that comes over a person in that situation,” he wrote. “In a blink of an eye, I am wondering whether I am supposed to run for my life in fear or if I should run after the car. My wife in this situation wants to chase this car, she is the maddest I have ever seen her. But somehow the lose-lose situation just overcomes my senses. I know if we chase the 3-4 men I could lose my life so I just tell her, ‘don’t worry about it’ and we walk on. In my mind, it was better to let the racism sink its anchor into my stomach and let it attempt to pirate and plunder any thoughts of confidence and self-worth for time being; than to chase the racism and possibly lose my life or to be imprisoned for trying to destroy it.”
HONEYCUTT hung up his track cleats for good in 2019.
Since then, he’s begun working with youth as the Sports Coordinator for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Scottsdale in the Phoenix area, and become an elder at his local church.
“I’m enjoying where I’m at right now,” he said. “I don’t know where that will lead. I’m making sure my family is provided for day by day.”
His mission now — to focus on what matters, to love who you are and where you are, to focus on making a difference–is one Honeycutt has honed through a lifetime both on and off the track, through a long process of figuring out that one’s motivation matters just as much as one’s objectives. In sport, as in life, process matters. And Honeycutt still seems awfully committed to giving his best, each and every day.