Thursday, August 9, 2012

Lolo: London epilogue

The London rain fell on the track as Lolo Jones prepared to run in the final of the women's 100-meter hurdles. Eight of the best women in the world at this event were on the track. Lolo was in Lane 2, the innermost runner as Lane 1 was unoccupied. On TV, one could see her lips repeating a phrase.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me...

Getting to an Olympic track final is never easy, unless perhaps you happen to be Usain Bolt, but Lolo had particularly needed to dig in and battle to get to this stage. In 2008 she was the best women's 100-meter hurdler in the world. As you probably know, she was leading the race in the 2008 Olympics when she clipped the ninth of 10 hurdles, causing her to finish an agonizing seventh instead of getting the gold.

But she threw herself into preparation for the next Olympics, even eating off of London 2012 plates for repeated motivation. She trained and trained and trained. Faster, higher, stronger.

She had to undergo surgery for a tethered spinal cord last summer and could barely walk after. She threw her ample determination into her rehab. Two hamstring injuries in the spring compounded the comeback, but she kept chipping away, improving her times. She was the third of three U.S. hurdlers to qualify for the Olympics in the 100 meter hurdles.

Lolo had plenty of support heading into the Games, but there was also a thinly-veiled jealousy by the other two U.S. hurdlers about the attention (and sponsorship dollars) Lolo had. There were critics who said she got too much attention relative to her success, including a nasty piece in the New York Times that led to significant reader backlash and caused the Times' public editor to write a piece calling the article too harsh, writing, "In this particular case, I think the writer was particularly harsh, even unnecessarily so."

The point the critics miss is that as sports fans we don't just pay attention to the absolute best athletes. We appreciate athletic excellence, sure, and Lolo is one of the best hurdlers in the world. But we really like good stories. Lolo has a great story, and her openness about her personal life (when asked) is refreshing. Fans like it when athletes are real, when they're human.

As for sponsorships, athletes can seek, accept or turn down whatever they want. Lolo grew up in poverty, and if they are a way to support herself and her family, then that's a blessing she should enjoy. And if we're still worrying about whether female athletes are too pretty or not pretty enough, well that's society's misfortune.

The point of all this is all the negative voices, combined with the regular, massive pressure of the Olympics and sure, the specter of that ninth hurdle at Beijing weighed on Lolo. She won her preliminary heat, and in the post race interview one could see the weight as she talked about proving the doubters wrong.

The semifinal was tough. I couldn't tell for sure, but it almost seemed like one of Lolo's feet drug out of the starting blocks. In any event, she sprinted on, at times at the very edge of her lane and once grazing a hurdle. But she has her speed and her will, and she churned out a third place finish that was fast enough to get her into the final.

So there she was Tuesday night in London's Olympic Stadium. London's familiar rain fell down on the athletes. It was a loaded final, with the three Americans, Australia's speedy Sally Pearson, and would be the fastest such race in Olympic history.

Lolo got a good start, and three of four hurdles in looked like she might medal or even win. But gradually, in the churn of those pumping and jumping legs, Pearson and the two other Americans surged ahead. Pearson set the Olympic record. Lolo finished fourth, the Olympics' heartbreak position, a tenth of a second away from an Olympic medal. Her time, 12.58, would've won a medal in Beijing, but she later said that didn't make her feel any better, understandably.

After the race, she stood with hands on her hips, gazing out into the night and the rain and the noise. Into the tempest. The classic pose of the gallant-but-defeated athlete.

"As an athlete, you never want to make excuses," Lolo said after the race. "I did the best I could tonight with the cards I was dealt... In '08, I tasted the medal. Here I was just clawing my way through each round and trying to get on the team."

As for continuing her pursuit of an Olympic medal, at Rio in 2016, she said she always thought those would be her last Games. But she added, "Now that I have two bittersweet Olympics, man, I don't know. Every time I come here, I get burned. I'm really disappointed in myself and I feel like I let a lot of people down."

Later, in her room, she tweeted that she was singing Hillsong's "Desert Song" and had it on repeat, adding, "Lord Jesus please comfort me, guide me & heal my broken heart."

Agonizing stuff, enough so that yours truly was tweeting whatever I could at her to try to in some way help.

Probably on little or no sleep, she gamely appeared on NBC's Today Show the following day, her eyes watery and her throat tightening as she was nearly choked up with tears, talking about the New York Times article and the criticism she's received. (Emotional, tough-to-watch clip of the interview here.)

"I think it was just crazy because it was two days before I competed, and then the fact that it was from a U.S. media. I mean they should be supporting out U.S. Olympic athletes and instead they just ripped me to shreds. I just thought that that was crazy because I worked six days a week, every day, for four years for a 12-second race, and the fact that they just tore me apart, it was just heartbreaking."

She was fighting hard against the tears at this point, but she continued.

"They didn't even do their research, calling me the Anna Kournikova of track. I have the American record. I am the American record holder indoors, I have two world indoor titles. Just because I don't boast about these things, I don't think I should be ripped apart by media. I mean I laid it out there, I fought hard for my country, and think it's a shame that I have to deal with so much backlash when I'm already so brokenhearted as it is."

She went on to say she did not regret being so open about her story, saying maybe there's a little girl out there who doubts she can make the Olympics, but maybe the story of Lolo's struggles overcome could help her see what's possible.

Lolo said after the final that her critics could now "have their night and laugh about me." But they don't matter, really. Through all the pain and heartbreak and tears, she probably knows this or will know it.

No, what matters is the action, the effort, the daily grind to achieve her dreams. What matters is Christ who strengthens her. What matters are the thousands or maybe millions of people who are inspired to run a better race, on tracks and in life, because of her. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. But it's the willingness to overcome fear and challenges and doubt to try anyway, to act anyway, to take a chance anyway; that's where the glory lies.

Teddy Roosevelt said it well, and switching man to woman I think it applies to Lolo's ongoing story:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong [woman] stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the [woman] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends [herself] in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if [she] fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that [her] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

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