February 7, 2004
Jones Finds Higher Gear in Comeback
By LIZ ROBBINS
At the starting line for the long-awaited 60-meter race — an event anticipated for four hours last night and for 17 months by the track community — Marion Jones kissed her fingers and waved to the fans, the electricity of Madison Square Garden and her unfamiliar nerves quickening her pulse.
The starting gun went off, and she stalled. Three other women jumped ahead. In a blink, with 20 meters to run, Jones saw a frightening image and replaced it with a better one.
“After four steps, I looked up and saw — I looked like a woman who has been on pregnancy leave for 12 months,” she said. “I was like,
Whoa, what's going on?' "And then I switched gears, and said: O.K., I’m the Olympic champion. I should be out running and dominating the race.’ Something kind of clicked at 40 meters. I’m not going to come to the Millrose Games, my debut, and get beaten. That’s not the way I wanted to start my season in 2004 at all.”
Jones, who won three Olympic gold medals at the 2000 Sydney Games, needed 55 meters to pass Angela Daigle, who finished second. Jones crossed the finish line first in 7.21 seconds.
In some ways, given her layoff, these were baby steps, the first Jones needed to take in her return to the sport, in her quest for more gold at the Athens Olympics in August and in her race to distance herself from the smoke of suspicion.
She was smiling, but she knew the start was shaky.
“Once again, the start seems to elude me,” Jones said. “Once I’m up and running, I can run with anybody. It’s that 0 to 30 that’s bad. It’s encouraging that I can come to Millrose and be able to cope with all this pressure, bad start, and still get the win.”
She finished three-hundredths of a second ahead of Daigle, whose highest finish was eighth place in the 100 meters at last year’s national championships. Inger Miller, the former world champion at 200 meters, finished third in 7.27. Torri Edwards, the reigning silver medalist in the 100 meters, was fourth (7.28), and Allyson Felix, who broke Jones’s junior record in the 200 last spring, finished fifth (7.36).
Jones has not competed since September 2002, when she won a 100-meter race in the I.A.A.F. World Cup in Madrid. After that she took a maternity leave and gave birth to her son, Monty, in June. A month after that, she was training again.
In November, she made headlines off the track when she and her companion, Tim Montgomery, testified before a federal grand jury investigating Victor Conte, the owner of Balco, the San Francisco Bay Area nutritional supplement company that was suspected of manufacturing THG, or tetrahydrogestrinone, a newly discovered designer steroid. Last winter, she and Montgomery briefly trained with Charlie Francis, the former coach of Ben Johnson, who was stripped of a gold medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics after testing positive for steroids.
Jones addressed questions this week about performance-enhancing drugs. Last night, she said, was purely about the running — and getting it over with as quickly as possible to fly back home to Monty.
“I wanted to be done with all the hoopla, all the big talk about the comeback,” she said. “I want to be like other athletes and blend in. It’s so difficult to do that.”
She said she had not felt this uncertain about herself since 1997, when she was an unknown at the national championships in a high-profile field. Jones won the 100 meters that year.
But she has become a different sprinter and person since then. In 2000, she won five medals, including three golds, at the Olympics. Her goal was to win five golds.
At 28, Jones knows she has more to accomplish. Another female track star, Gail Devers, has some doubts about her own future. Last night, Devers broke the Millrose record she set last year by running the 60-meter hurdles in 7.76 seconds, even though she hates the race.
The 37-year-old Devers, who calls herself Grandma, has not decided whether she will go for her fifth Olympics to try for what she calls the “elusive” gold medal in her specialty, the hurdles.
“In previous years, I could tell you I’m going to the Olympic Games, but I can’t tell you that right now,” she said. “Grandma can’t tell you that. I don’t know, there are so many other things I want to do.”
Devers is concentrating on running her indoor season, but Jones is starting to plan her season, which will continue in Europe. She said she would race the 60 meters and participate in the long jump in Birmingham, England, on Feb. 20, then compete only in the long jump in Athens on Feb. 27.
“Having taken a year off, that zest for the sport is back better than ever,” she said. "Yeah, there are so many different changes that have occurred over my life. Everything is so alive and new. It was so great to walk into that arena and feel the buzz. That feeling was overwhelming, I smiled to myself and said, `This is where I belong, and I’m glad to be back.’ "