The 12 in ’12 series celebrates the fact that the London 2012 Olympic Games are just two years away. The series previews 12 athletes who have proven themselves as true competitors in past Games and look to win medals for Team USA in London. The third part of the series features #1-ranked hurdler, Lolo Jones.
Two-time World Indoor Champion. World Athletics Final gold medalist. #1-ranked hurdler in 2010 IAAF Diamond League.
Lolo Jones was seconds away from a gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, when she clipped the ninth hurdle and stumbled into seventh place. Jones was the gold medal favorite then and, as the fastest women’s hurdler out there right now, will be again in London, as the world tries to peg those Games as “Lolo’s redemption.” But as Jones knows all too well, anything can happen in hurdles, and for her, London will be all about the process.
Jones’ childhood in Des Moines, Iowa
, was not the carefree, playful type that most kids have. Instead, she was forced to mature early, and learn to adjust quickly.
She grew up not really knowing her father. Her mother was left to find a way to care for five children by herself.
Jones’ mother, Lori (which is also Lolo’s birth name), tried her best to hold down two jobs at a time to support her large family. But there were many times when Lori and her kids would have to relocate, either in search of better opportunities, or because they were kicked out.
As a result of this, Jones ended up attending eight schools in eight years.
“One of the years, I started school in one place, but by the end of the year I was somewhere else,” Jones said. “As a kid, it was an opportunity for me to make a lot of friends, and I would have to get new friends at each school.”
This lifestyle turned out to be beneficial to Jones’ track career later in life.
“A lot of times we go to these different countries, and people try to cling to their American friends,” Jones said. “But because I was raised in a situation where I had to make new friends quickly, my lifestyle actually agrees with the way I was raised.”
When Jones realized she had a serious passion for track, she knew she had to put an end to her nomadic lifestyle. In her sophomore year of high school, when her family was planning to move yet again, Jones told her mother she couldn’t continue to move around with them.
She needed to stay in one place, and focus on her dreams. And for once in her life, Jones would plant her roots at one school… just not in the same home.
“At first, the track team coach found someone on my team who let me live with them,” Jones said. “Then I lived with three other families after that, so I stayed at the same school but switched families three times.”
Jones intended to begin her collegiate career at Iowa State University in the fall of 2000, until she visited Louisiana State University (LSU) and had a change of heart.
“When Lolo came to LSU to make an official visit, I was quite impressed with the fact that she had a page full of questions that she would ask me, and she was writing down the answers,” said Dennis Shaver, then-assistant coach of LSU’s track and field program. “I knew that she was highly motivated by the fact that she had some definite goals she wanted to accomplish. It was more of an interview as to whether I was the right person that could help her get there.”
In college, Jones found success where she could get it, having mixed results throughout her four years at LSU. During her sophomore year, she was the NCAA Outdoor runner-up in both the 100-meter hurdles and 4x100-meter relay. Then, in 2003, she helped her 4x100m teammates become the NCAA champions, and won the NCAA Indoors 60-meter hurdles race, but couldn’t find the outdoor success she was hoping for. As a senior, her team defended as 4x100m champions, and she improved individually, placing fourth at the NCAA Outdoors 100m hurdles.
Jones herself said she did not have a lot of success in college, but still believes she was a solid athlete, and was able to use her collegiate career as a time to fine-tune her craft.
“I was a team player,” Jones said. “I helped the team get a lot of titles. I really consider my LSU years my building years and a time for me as an individual to really enjoy the team aspect of an individual sport. I was focused on doing well in school, and track on the side.”
As Coach Shaver learned, his initial take on Jones was spot-on, and she continued to impress him over the next four years.
“In her LSU years, I saw her relentless desire to be the very best in her event,” Shaver said. “She’s always been willing to work extremely hard to accomplish anything. Whether it be the diet that she has, or trying to fuel her system in the very best way she can. She’s always been willing to work hard.”
Hurdling Towards Beijing
By the time Jones had graduated in 2005, Shaver had been appointed to head coach. Upon graduating, Jones asked her coach, “Where do I go from here?”
“I remember telling her that one of the key factors would be that she could reach out and study more about fueling her body and becoming a leaner athlete,” Shave said. “And I think she went to work on that, and it’s amazing to me, how, in eight short weeks, she sensibly went about that, and was a few pounds lighter when training began that year.”
Jones decided to stick with Shaver, and became one of the dozen graduate athletes who continue to train with him at LSU.
She spent the next few years trying to achieve the outdoor success she had missed out on in college.
“As an athlete you have dreams,” Jones said. “But looking back on it, I only won one NCAA title, but it was an indoor title, and as we know people don’t really respect indoor titles because the Olympics are outdoors.”
She came in fourth, fifth, and third at USA Outdoors from 2005 -2007. It wasn’t until the 2008 season when Jones really hit her stride – the perfect time, considering the Beijing Games were right around the corner.
In 2008, she was the U.S. Olympic Trials champion, and was ranked first in the world. All eyes were on Jones in Beijing, as she was the clear gold medal favorite.
“I thought it was funny that for the first race of my life everyone was trying to put me as the top runner,” Jones said. “Because that’s not a position I was used to in years past. There were always three other people and I was one of the lane fillers. I thought I did a good job adjusting to that situation, I really felt comfortable and I focused on the race and not the lights and the people and all that.”
Jones made it to the finals of the 100m hurdles in Beijing, still the #1-seeded runner. And as she began running in the finals, she quickly found a good rhythm, and was well ahead of her competitors. She looked to be the winner, until two seconds before the finish line.
Jones had clipped the ninth of ten hurdles, and stumbled into seventh place. It is a mistake that Jones said happens twice a year, usually in practice. And it was a moment that spectators will not forget, not just because of the shocking turn of events, but the looks of disappointment and sorrow on Jones’ face.
“My goal as an athlete is to finish the race,” Jones said. “So I knew I lost a medal, but I just wanted to finish the race, and when I crossed the line then I knew that the damage was worse than I thought.”
“Initially, you just realize that a gold medal was within arms’ reach, and those are once-in-an-entire lifetime opportunities,” Shaver said. “The reality of it is, I just had tremendous disappointment for her. Because she has had to overcome a lot of obstacles in her lifetime, and I just felt like she deserved to win that one, and had earned her way to win that one.”
Coach Shaver wasn’t about to let Jones’ career end there. The day after the hurdles final in Beijing, he sent her a text and told her to meet him at the track for practice.
Shaver had no idea whether she would show up or not, but the last thing he wanted was for her to have time to dwell on her mistake. They had future races outside of the Games to focus on.
“And certainly, she came, and we went back to business because there were other meets going on after the Olympic Games,” Shaver said. “I was trying to get her to understand, ‘Yeah, that happened, and we can’t change that. What we can do is do something about the races that are upcoming.’”
Since 2008, Jones has continued to prove that she’s one of the best in the world. In 2008 and 2010, she won gold at the World Indoor Championships. She also became the World Athletics Final gold medalist in 2008, after Spain's Josephine Oniya later tested positive for methylhexamine and her results were annulled.
In 2009, Jones was the second-fastest hurdler in the world. But a hamstring injury would keep her from trying to make the World Championship team. Jones believes that had she been at World Championships last season, the gold would be hers.
“My time was better than all of the girls when they crossed the line at World Championships,” Jones said. “It’s just how the USA picks their team, it’s done in advance.”
Jones is quick to tell people not to discredit her just because she is still missing a title in the 100m hurdles. After all, she is currently the number one hurdler in the world this season, and is undefeated in the IAAF Diamond League.
As for why she showed up to practice that next day in Beijing, and has continued competing for two years? London, of course.
“I lost the gold medal,” Jones said. “Am I over it? No, of course not. I use it as motivation daily. I don’t want to be over it. I use the negativity into a force that will drive me to the next Olympics.”
Coach Shaver, who has been with Jones for more than a decade now, and looks at Jones as a second daughter, said he has been amazed with the way she’s been able to grow up and deal with her emotions, especially since Beijing.
“She’s a very emotional person, which can be a real bonus for you, but can also be your worst enemy,” Shaver said. “Early on, when we didn’t see eye-to-eye on how things needed to be done, it was usually a high energetic kind of discussion, when now, in all aspects of her life, I think she’s really matured and learned how to deal with conflict in a much more effective way.”
“It’s something that everybody’s constantly trying to improve upon, but I point to the incident that happened in Beijing, and how she dealt with that adversity. The young woman who came to LSU never would have been that way.”
While Jones has short-term goals, such as maintaining her top world ranking through the end of the Diamond League meets and running towards that elusive outdoor title at next year’s World Championships, she knows that her driving force is London 2012.
“We know that our careers go in cycles of four years,” Jones said. “As a veteran hurdler, I know what to expect and I know how far in advance I need to get ready for it. I think out of college it’s easier because you just go there and your mind is free, but the force that’s driving me to the next Olympics is pretty cool.”
Jones has learned her lesson, and as badly as she wants that Olympic gold in two years, she refuses to put expectations on herself for those Games, and has a new perspective on racing thanks to her Beijing experience.
“I know everyone’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s Lolo’s redemption, she’s guaranteed to win this medal because of karma and what happened,’” Jones said. “But I feel like if I focus on the crowd, the lights, the redemption from four years ago, the emotion, then we’re gonna have a bad result.”
“What I did learn about this whole Olympic thing is the process. So many people think it’s about the gold medal – its’ not. I thought it was, and it’s taken me eight years of this journey to realize it’s not. If I had that medal, it can hang in my house, I can show it off. But that’s not what I’m gonna remember most – it’s the process, the memories that came with it, the stories behind it, the feeling I had when I was in the Olympic Village. It’s honestly all about the journey.”
Barring any injury in the next two years, Jones’ journey should lead straight to a gold medal. Though if it doesn’t happen there, she knows she’ll have more chances in the future.
“It would be an early retirement if I retired after the London Olympics, because hurdlers can go until they’re 32-35,” Jones said. “That’s when they peak. Rio would be my peak performance.
“Competitors will be dealing with me for the next two Olympics, and I think that’s great because with the pressure that everybody’s trying to put on me for the next Olympics, I think it helps knowing London is not my last Olympics and I can also go to Brazil.”
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