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Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, Jess Lyons loved sports. She spent countless hours of her youth playing softball, volleyball and basketball. 

So when it came time to decide what to study at Ohio State University, the now 34-year-old decided to pursue a degree in sports management, turning her love of athletics into a career. 

Lyons graduated from OSU in 2008 and later attended graduate school at Seattle University, where she studied sports administration and leadership.

In 2014 she accepted an internship with USA Rugby in Boulder and decided to stay in Colorado rather than return to Seattle to finish her degree. 

Following her internship, Lyons moved to Colorado Springs after finding a job with the Tri-Lakes YMCA as its sports director. She later was promoted to regional sports director, overseeing sports for the northern half of the YMCA’s operations in Colorado Springs. Earlier this year, she was promoted once more and is now the association director of sports for YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region. 

And although her transition to the new role was already in the works prior to 2020, Lyons took the reins shortly before COVID-19 came to Colorado, and has since led the organization’s efforts to provide athletic opportunities during an unprecedented time for both sports and business. 

Lyons recently sat down with the Business Journal to discuss her role and what’s changed at the Y during the pandemic. 

What made you want to pursue a career that involves athletics?

Growing up, sports were just always a big part of my life. That’s what I did every day, all the time, all year. And so when it came time to decide what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I was trying to figure out: What’s going to make me happy? What do I enjoy? And sports and people were a big thing that kind of combined those two common factors. And so I went into sports management knowing I could either go the teaching route and be like an athletic director or a [physical education] teacher or something like that, or I could work in the front office in more of the administration side.

What’s new for you in your new role with the YMCA?

Well there’s new in the position and new with COVID. So it’s been a very steep learning curve. With my new role I get to expand on a lot of the partnerships that we have. So we’ve been able to partner with a bunch of our different school districts, between [Lewis-Palmer School District] 38 and [Academy School District] 20 and [Falcon] 49 as well. So it’s really getting to expand on those partnerships and those relationships that we have with people, but also … having to cast that vision for all of our sports programs across the Springs, instead of just really focusing on what I am doing in my one area. So it’s a lot more of, ‘What can we do serving people from the south side and Fountain all the way up to Monument? How are those different? And how are we going to meet the needs of those specific communities?’

 

What’s changed with the Y during the pandemic?

Really the biggest change is just trying to figure out how we can offer new things.  We’re constantly thinking about different things that we’ve never had to think about before, even things like the traffic flow now at our practices that we’re going to have for our fall season. We ran some sports camps this summer and it’s a lot smaller group than what we’re used to, so working during the pandemic, it’s really taking a step back to look at what new things could we run? What opportunities are being provided for us that maybe we wouldn’t have had the chance to do pre-pandemic? So it’s really been forcing a lot of that out-of-the-box focus, a lot of collaboration, even just between departments that we have here at the Y, to really just kind of figure out what are we going to be able to put out there that people need during this time?

Why is youth sports important right now?

We know, especially with kids, that they need some type of normalcy. They adapted so well when they went to remote learning in the spring and then through the summer. Now with them starting school again, we’re really looking at how can we give them a chance to be active? But also, they’ve missed their friends for six months and a lot of kids kind of forget things like, ‘How do I play with a team?’ And, ‘How do I interact with people?’ And, ‘What’s OK and what’s not?’ So it’s really looking to not only fill the physical needs of the kids and get them active but also learning teamwork and the social side of it.

And it’s for their parents as well. It gives parents — even if just for an hour a day — a little bit of a break while their kid’s at practice. And they get to see their kids compete again and be happy and have fun. And so that’s kind of a big thing for us — how can we keep people safe but make sure the kids are having fun, too?

 

What do you enjoy about the work you do?

What I enjoy is the relationship aspect. It’s the people I work with, as well as the people I’ve gotten to know in our programs over the last couple years — from parents to coaches to kids. And it’s something new every day. It’s a lot of the same work, but you never know what you’re going to get into when you walk in every day. And so I enjoy that, plus the ability to kind of create those new programs and be on that innovation side of things. Just because we’re the YMCA and I run sports doesn’t mean that I can’t help with an after-school program or with intramural sports at an elementary school. Not everything has to be here inside the YMCA, in the sports office, all the time.

 

How does Colorado Springs compare to other places you’ve lived?

I went from Columbus to Seattle to the Springs, so it was a big shift from that hustle and bustle of the big city. That’s why I liked the Springs over somewhere like Denver — I was tired of the big city, and the Springs afforded you the ability to feel like you’re still in the city, but still have kind of that smaller-town feel. Coming here, you don’t feel overwhelmed, traffic wasn’t horrible. It didn’t take me an hour to get 10 miles like it did in Seattle. You still have those luxuries [of a big city] but it feels a lot closer and a lot more attainable. 

What do you like to do for fun?

I like to travel and take vacations when we can. We — my husband and I — like to go to any sporting event we can. That’s usually what a lot of our vacations and trips are planned around, so that’s kind of put a wrench in our travel plans for this year. But most of our trips have been centered around: Where is Ohio State playing in a bowl game? Or what baseball game do we want to go see? Things like that. So that’s really the biggest thing is just being able to hang out at home and go to sporting events and go travel to new places we haven’t seen.

What are some of your immediate and ultimate goals?

I feel like right now I’ve just been so focused on day-by-day things. I always like to learn something new and like to be challenged and if I get to the spot where I feel like I’m just doing the same thing every day, day in and day out, I look for different opportunities to expand, either in a work capacity or just a personal capacity. What else can I be learning? And that’s a great thing about Colorado Springs, too, is that I feel like I’m learning something new about the city every week that you wouldn’t think about or wouldn’t know. And that makes it more of an appealing place to live.

So I think that’s just always going to be a long-term goal of mine to just make sure that I’m always learning and not becoming complacent with where I am. And always looking at the next thing, a new idea, a different way to do things, or have a different perspective on things. So I don’t have a specific goal, like, ‘In five years I want to be in this role in this job in this career.’ I kind of just take things as they come.

Reporter

Zach Hillstrom is a Colorado Springs native and graduate of Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked as a reporter for Southern Colorado print outlets since 2015.