Thursday, July 26, 2012


Even as a kid, Lolo Jones had to hurry. When she was in third grade, her family was homeless. The family was staying in a church basement for the summer, and Lolo attended the church's day camp. Because children can be cruel and young Lolo didn't want them finding out her family's living situation, she would hurry up to the church's gym well before the day camp began so the others would think she had been dropped off.

Lolo had a tough childhood. Her father was in and out of jail, and her family bounced around several places in the Des Moines area. Her mom worked, worked hard, to feed the family's five kids, but the family was impoverished. Lolo tells stories of stealing frozen dinners, the clash of shame and needing to survive. She's only partly joking when she says her speed came in handy. She also recalls embarrassing trips to the grocery store, buying items with food stamps, hoping her peers didn't see her.

After overcoming these obstacles at a young age, it seems appropriate that Lolo became a world class hurdler. Lolo earned a track scholarship to LSU, where she won national championships as a hurdler. She missed her family, but there was no stable situation for her to go home to in Iowa. She stayed in Baton Rouge even on holidays and breaks.

The struggles Lolo faced growing up built her character and strengthened her resolve, as has her Christian faith. If she harbors any anger or bitterness about what her family had to overcome, she doesn't show it. She's witty, she's beautiful, she's patriotic.

Despite her college success, she failed to qualify for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. She cried while she watched the 2004 Athens Olympics at home. She wasn't sure if she should continue her track career, or just take that LSU degree and find a "real" job. Her college and current track coach, Bob Shaver, helped convince her to continue her hurdling career. Her event, the 100 meter hurdles, is a very technical event that times time to master, usually. She stuck with it, getting better each year. She ran an outrageous schedule for a while, needing to run a ton of races to support herself. She also worked part time in a Cajun restaurant and at Home Depot, working in the steamy garden department. For an Iowa girl, the Louisiana heat had to be especially brutal.

But she stuck with it, and by 2008 she seemed to be the best hurdler in the world. With her incredible backstory, her looks, her charm, her personality, she was becoming a national darling. She destroyed the field in the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials and was on her way to Beijing. She cruised on in her Olympic heat and semifinals and into the final.

Aug. 19, 2008, the 100 meter hurdles Olympic final

The tension is Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium that night was almost overwhelming, as it often is before big Olympic races, especially the shortest ones. The Olympics are a fleeting, decisive cauldron of pressure, a life's work boiled down to seconds, with do-overs four years away, if ever. This race would be less than 13 seconds to decide destinies. The sections in italics below are Lolo's noticeably vivid memories of those 13 seconds, from this fantastic TIME profile of her.

When the gun went off, the Australian girl got out on me. She beat me to the third hurdle. You know, I was cool and calm about it. She had been doing that all year, and I would always get her in the end. 

Sure enough, I passed her, and from hurdles three through five, I was just in an amazing rhythm. I started turning it over, and then I knew at one point I was winning the race. It wasn't like, Oh, I'm winning the Olympic gold medal. It just seemed like another race. 

Calling the race for NBC, Tom Hammond's voice rose as Lolo surged ahead. Hammond has had some terrific calls of Olympic races ("The Greek is in front!" as Athens came unhinged in 2004 and "Usain Bolt! Winning by daylight!" in Bolt's 2008 awe-inspiring 100 meter dash win), and he seemed about to have the opportunity for another.

And then there was a point after that where I was like, Wow, these hurdles are coming up really, really fast. You have to make sure you don't get sloppy in your technique. I was telling myself to make sure my legs were snapping out. So I overtried. I tightened up a bit too much. That's when I hit the hurdle. Honestly, I should have relaxed a little bit and just run. Instead, I was just so paranoid because they were coming up so fast, I snapped it down too fast. 

While she was in front, Lolo's right, lead foot grazed the ninth of the 10 hurdles. She wobbled and her arms stuck out. She somehow stayed on her feet, but her momentum was dashed and several runners passed her. She crossed the line seventh, having been steps from the glory of Olympic gold. She screamed a word as she crossed the line, then crumpled into a heap a few steps past it. She gazed up, her bright eyes a mixture of so many awful emotions, shock and despair and disappointment. Then she dropped her head in tears. After a heartbreaking on-track interview after the final in which she said she probably hits a hurdle twice a year, and it had happened in the biggest race of her life, she went into a tunnel underneath the stadium, leaned against a wall, put her head back, and wept more.

You know, when I hit it, I thought I would still be able to get a medal. But when I crossed the line, I knew how bad it was. I collapsed on the track, and I couldn't stop thinking, I just wish the next Olympics were tomorrow.

In 2004 she cried at home during the Olympics, in 2008 Lolo cried on the track. In one of her many gracious interviews after that fateful night, the day after, Lolo noted this and said she hoped to be crying in London in 2012 -- this time from the joy of winning Olympic gold.

(Not great quality, but here is video of the race, including the heartbreaking reaction of her family shortly after the 3:00 mark. Here's another clip of it and the aftermath, starting about the 10:15 mark.)

Lolo qualified for the 2012 Olympic team earlier this summer, despite a few injuries and a surgery last year. She's even more famous this time, with the Beijing agony added to her already ample story. She's also generated attention for saying on Twitter and in interviews that she is a virgin. "It's just something, a gift I want to give my husband," she said on HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel." Jones' faith is very important to her, but she added "it's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life -- harder than training for the Olympics, harder than graduating from college, has been to stay a virgin before marriage."

(Here's a funny-yet-serious clip from the interview, conducted by Mary Carillo.)

Lolo makes jokes about the situation, in her usual style, saying it's "cute" for a girl to be a virgin at 22, but "24 through 29, not cute." (She turns 30 on Aug. 5.) She pokes fun at her dating misadventures and singleness on Twitter. But she acknowledges the temptations and opportunities to give in; she's a beautiful, charismatic woman. In a revelation that makes me cringe on behalf of my gender, she said guys have told her if she slept with them she'd run faster.

But Lolo grew up in a tough family situation, and her parents never did get married. She agrees she wants the ideal she never had, a "Norman Rockwell picture" of marriage and family.

Good for her. I'm rooting hard for Lolo Jones to win in London. Her prelims/semis/finals are scheduled for Aug. 6 and 7. It will be tough, with two other talented Americans in London, including the 2008 champ, and an Australian woman who is probably the favorite to win the gold.

Sure, there are probably scars from the 2008 final in the Bird's Nest. She broke down in tears at a TIME photo shoot the day after a TIME reporter asked her if she had "choked" in Beijing, saying, "Nobody has ever asked me that question." But that failure in the final wasn't final. This remarkable woman is back at the Olympics.

Earlier today, she tweeted: "As I arrive in London for the Olympics, I'm overwhelmed with emotions. Thank you Lord for another chance and for holding me as i waited."

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