Lolo back on her feet

January 26, 2009

Lolo Jones back on track after Beijing nightmare
Lolo Jones of the United States

Rick Broadbent, Athletics Correspondent The Times

If Barack Obama wants a new totem for the American dream, he might look to a woman who dragged herself up from a squat in a church basement to a shot at the top of the Olympic podium. These being hard times, however, there was one last hurdle and she stumbled. Literally.

The image of Lolo Jones going from first to seventh after clipping the penultimate obstacle in the 100 metres hurdles final was one of the most indelible of the Beijing Olympic Games. Suddenly she became the unluckiest athlete in the world. Business leaders wanted to meet her. Schools invited her to speak. Everyone wanted to hear from the woman who had plucked defeat from the jaws of victory.

“Everything was going smoothly,” she recalled. “It was clicking. I was on a golden road and the light was shining down. Then that. It happens maybe twice a year. Just a shame it happened to be in the biggest race of my life.” It was a fittingly dramatic denouement to a very American story, but she said: “I never thought, ‘Why me?’ I mean it’s not like I haven’t been through devastation before.”

Jones had a troubled upbringing in Iowa, where her father spent time in the Air Force and jail and her mother was forever fleeing bailiffs. They ended up homeless and lived in the basement of a church in Des Moines, from where Jones would sneak upstairs early so that the children arriving for day school did not know her secret.

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When she was 16 she chose not to follow her mother to her latest bolt hole and instead moved around four different families. “I knew that the only answer was going to college,” she said. “I wanted an education because I wanted to get out of poverty.”

Roosevelt High School was the making of Jones, but it was a pitted path to Beijing. When she failed to make the Olympic team for Athens four years earlier she was faced with a crossroads and chose the difficult route. With no money and well-worn credit cards, she decided to stick with athletics and paid for it by juggling minimum-wage jobs as a waitress, a cashier and a personal trainer. To save money, she would leave off the air conditioning in the heat of a Louisiana summer. “I had no contract, I hadn’t even made the finals at the Olympic trials and I was working all hours,” she said. “It took me a year before I could pay my bills.”

She stuck at it and won the world indoor hurdles title in Valencia over 60 metres last year. In Beijing she posted the fastest time of the year, 12.43sec, in her semi-final, watched by her mother. And then it all went wrong. “I’m not an over-analyser,” she said. “I had to stop thinking, ‘Oh no, what’s going to happen now, will I get another chance?’ I had to refocus.

“Four years ago I was in Wal-Mart. The Olympics can change your life, but I was not going to let one race break my career. I haven’t watched the race since, apart from in the media zone immediately afterwards, because it’s not something I want to relive. I just want to fix it and move on. I figured out what went wrong and now I’ve got four years to work on it.”

Her mishap meant that she did not receive any money for her Olympic efforts and she casts covetous eyes at Britain’s lottery system. “I wish we had the same structure. I was the No 1 athlete in the US but I got no medal so I got no money,” she said. “In the UK you are guaranteed to walk away with something and the fact we don’t have that support in the US speaks volumes. If you’re ranked in the top ten then you get some money for your coach and a bit extra, but it’s nothing compared with what the UK athletes get.

“There have been times I’ve been worried about my world ranking just so I can maintain my health insurance. You can argue the system makes you concentrate. The other side of the coin is I’ve seen people crack from it.”

Jones is not the cracking type. With her unshakeable attitude, good looks and mixed heritage, embracing Native American, Afro-American and European cultures, she is an all-American heroic failure. She further endeared herself to the public last year when she donated her winnings from the Olympic trials to a single mother left homeless by flooding in Iowa. Then, after Beijing, she stayed in Europe as Hurricane Gustav ripped through her home town. “It’s pretty miserable for everyone in Baton Rouge because they are living off beans,” she said.

Jones’s near-misses may yet make her more famous than her hits, but she is not in it for the limelight. “The whole drugs issue has turned people off track and field in the States,” she said. “People still ask me if I run against Gail Devers and I have to say she’s been retired for years. People like Sanya Richards and Allyson Felix should be household names, but we fight a lot of other sports.”

Felix has been appointed to serve under Obama on the Physical Fitness and Sports Council. For Jones, now 26, the campaign trail begins in Glasgow on January 31. She can ill afford any self-pity as she looks to right wrongs at the World Championships in August and she is upbeat. “It was an ideal season,” she said of 2008. “Apart from the Olympic Games.”

Lolo Jones is competing at the Aviva International Match, Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, on January 31 and the Aviva Grand Prix, NIA, Birmingham, on February 21. More at