Racers clear the hurdles by less than an inch and take the same number of steps in every race. The smallest shift in rhythm can lead to disaster.
Back in 2008, during the buildup to the Beijing Olympics, newspapers couldn’t resist the Hollywood headlines. The From Homeless to Hero (USA Today) tale of Iowa-raised track phenom Lolo Jones, for whom there was No Hurdle Too Great (Los Angeles Times), seemed right out of a screenplay: single mother, father in prison, six different primary schools, three brothers and a sister, beans for dinner, living in a church basement. Running was her one constant. She started racing in eighth grade, set Iowa’s 100-meter-hurdle record as a senior at Des Moines’s Roosevelt High School and was given a full ride at Louisiana State University, where she was an 11-time all-American. She arrived in Beijing favored to win the 100-meter hurdles.
“Yeah, I could do a Lifetime movie,” Jones, who’s 29, wisecracks over the outsize platters of shrimp and coleslaw she’s ordered at a J. Alexander’s restaurant in the parking lot of a Baton Rouge shopping mall not far from LSU, where she still trains with her college coach. “Rashida Jones would play me as current Lolo, Vanessa Williams would play me when I get older, and Halle Berry’s kid would play me when I was younger—obviously.”
But unlike NFL lineman Michael Oher, whose unlikely rise became Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side and then the tear-jerker that won Sandra Bullock a Best Actress Oscar, Jones had a hiccup—or, rather, a stumble—which is why you probably don’t remember her. Eight hurdles into the 100-meter final in Beijing, Jones was on pace to break the Olympic record of 12:37 seconds, grab the gold, and fulfill her destiny.
“There’s a saying in hurdles that when you fall, you’re usually running really fast,” she says, offering an explanation she’s given a number of times in the past three and a half years. “You’re not used to that rhythm—and that’s what happened.”
She clipped the ninth hurdle and broke stride, allowing her teammate Dawn Harper to win. Jones finished seventh. No Wheaties box. No movie. In the moments after the race, she was a wreck, in tears, pacing, and asking nobody in particular, “Why? Why? Why?”
It felt like the wrong ending to the story—Cinderella falling on her face at the ball—but it was, in fact, the moment when the tale of Lolo Jones started getting really interesting. Because if she went to Beijing as the next incarnation of the late Florence Griffith Joyner—a.k.a. Flo Jo, the heroine of the 1988 Games who grew up in the projects of L.A.—she’ll be heading to London with an added tough-luck narrative, the same one embodied by speed skater Dan Jansen. Favored to win two medals in 1988, Jansen learned before his first event that his sister had died, and he came home empty-handed. It would take him two more Olympics before he finally won a medal, capturing the gold in his very last race.
For Jones the stakes are even higher. As a sprint hurdler, she has only one event, the 100. And unlike some track-and-field competitors, like high jumpers, who get three tries at every height, runners get no second chances. They race in two elimination heats, with the top eight finishers moving on to the finals.
“There’s just no room for error,” says LSU track-and-field head coach Dennis Shaver, who’s in his 17th year at the school and has worked with Jones since 2000. “If you tap a hurdle with your trailing knee, you can go from first to fifth that quick. There are more things that can go wrong in hurdles than in any other track-and-field event.”
Indeed, factors like wind and the flailing arms of the runners beside you are all the more significant in hurdling, because of the precision required. Racers clear the hurdles by less than an inch and take the exact same number of steps in every race. The smallest shift in rhythm can lead to disaster.
Jones readily admits that winning “takes a little bit of luck,” but she’s doing everything she can to avoid needing it. The day before we met up in Baton Rouge, she was sprinting up the bleachers at 92,000-seat Tiger Stadium. She trains six days a week—“I take the Lord’s day off, unless it’s the Olympics,” she explains—and has been pushing hard to recover from back surgery last August to fix a birth defect that gave her shooting pains.
Though Jones hasn’t raced since the procedure, she’s still confident about her chances in the USA Indoor Track and Field Championships, on February 25 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and in the March IAAF World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, where she’ll try to become the first person to win three consecutive titles.
“I’m the only hurdler who’s been top five every year,” says Jones. “Even the Olympic champion [Harper] wasn’t able to do that.”
After the IAAF it’s the Olympic Trials, in Eugene, Oregon, in June and, six weeks later, the start of the London Games, where her 2008 stumble will surely be looping on NBC in the previews to each of her heats. And when she saunters up to the blocks for the finals, we’ll be watching, hoping that Lolo Jones gets her story right this time.