We are breezing through the 30th Olympiad – The London Olympics, The Summer Games, Ryan Seacrest Pretends He Likes Sports Month – whatever you want to call it, and by now most Americans at least know of American hurdler Lolo Jones. As a society we’ve done what we always do when presented with new, real-life characters – we categorize them in our minds for convenient access later. In her case we’ve seemed to grasp the following fairly easily – she’s beautiful, she runs track for the Good Ole’ US of A and she is a 29 year-old virgin who joked about taking Tim Tebow on a “church date” on Leno.
Are all those things true? Of course they are, but I see a more fulfilling story out there in regards to Ms. Jones – one independent from her religious views, her saucy ESPN photo shoot or even her resemblance to actress Rashida Jones (no relation, we think). It could end up being a redemptive journey and conclusion almost too literal to be believed. One that started with utter heartbreak at the 2008 Beijing Games, took her to athletic (and bodily) purgatory, and now back to the Olympics again to write the final act of a would-be sports movie that was close to being a classic tale of missed opportunity (and I’m not referencing the IOC’s refusal to honor the victims of the Munich massacre forty years ago with a moment of silence).
As TIME Magazine pointed out last week – with Jones on one of three covers designated for American Olympians (along with swimmer Ryan Lochte and gymnast Gabby Douglas) and a headline reading “Four years after an epic stumble, Lolo Jones is back for gold”, she has a unique chance to re-write what history will say about her in less than 13 seconds (assuming she qualifies for the final). The odds are actually against her – teammate Dawn Harper is back for another run at gold in their event, the 100 meter hurdles, and is considered the favorite to repeat. Jones’ story is different than the dominant plotlines we’ve become accustomed to during the Olympic season. This isn’t Michael Phelps (“Ugh, Silver? Really?! He must not care anymore!”) or Shaun White (“Watch this guy, he is unequivocally the best.”) or the 1996 women’s gymnastics team, fondly labeled The Magnificent Seven, that delighted the country collectively in Atlanta, capturing the USA’s first gold medal in women’s team gymnastics. If characters of years gone by were Superman (and woman) then Lolo is Batman, bereft of the otherworldly powers and unflinching support the others could count on. This is one woman trying to erase (or at least ease) the pain of hitting the second-to-last hurdle with her foot while in the lead in the biggest race of her life, blowing sure gold in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
She finished seventh that day. The image is indelible – Lolo on the track, collapsed to her knees, shaking her clenched hands in the air and pounding the track in disbelief and anguish. After her stunning misfortune, she somehow collected herself to give a graceful Today Show interview with Matt Lauer the next day. If the knife was already dug in at that point, it was twisted violently when she was seated next to Harper, who had the newly-minted gold around her neck, less than 24 hours after Lolo’s heartbreak became her teammate’s crowning achievement. Somehow, more disappointment was on the way.
You always hear about athletes preparing mentally as well as physically before, during and even after competition. When her performance the following indoor season was scattered, many chalked that up to her being mentally broken from her failure in Beijing (she actually hit yet another hurdle with her foot), not knowing that Jones was actually suffering from a tethered spine, a serious issue that threatened not only her career but her long-term health as well. In essence, her brain couldn’t feel where her feet were, explaining the mysterious foot-to-hurdle miscues. She had surgery on August 11, 2011 with renowned spinal specialist Dr. Robert S. Bray, Jr. to relieve and repair her damaged spine, one year away from the London 2012.
Now that she has recovered, it’s fair to wonder if she is as powerful and smooth as she was back in ‘08. She barely qualified for the USA team in June by finishing 3rd in the domestic trials to cement her bid for atonement. But if her words during the Lauer interview in Beijing prove to be prophetic, she could become one of the more prominent American faces of these games. “Maybe in four years, I will be crying, but they won’t be tears of sadness, they’ll be tears of joy.”
If she doesn’t medal, most likely she will fade into oblivion (or as Mike Tyson knows it, Bolivian…La Paz in February, perhaps?) only after being criticized as a money and fame-hungry hype machine that never had much substance in the first place. Unfortunately, that backlash is part of our crazy expectations for American Olympians, but that’s a story for another day (Last evening, after breaking the all-time record for most medals ever won in the Olympics, Michael Phelps was basically forced to admit he wasn’t as good as he used to be).
I don’t mind much if her pious beliefs don’t match up with mine, nor do I care that she probably receives more attention than other female athletes because of her striking looks and popular twitter feed (she had the most followers of any female US Olympic athlete heading into The Games). Like it or not, that’s the world we reside in. But I do care about her narrative; it’s why we love sports…and all stories, for that matter. It’s because every once in awhile something truly amazing happens. It’s because if she wins she can inspire others to fight through serious injury and setbacks both mental and physical. She isn’t dominant, and she has never won a gold medal in the Olympics, but she carries something with her this time around – along with her elegance, the Oakley sunglasses, the smile, the heartache – a rare second chance at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I can’t turn my eyes away from that.
I don’t know if Lolo Jones will stand on the tallest podium next month, tears pouring down her cheeks under the brightest of lights, the National Anthem pumping through Olympic Stadium in London, flag after flag waving in the dense night air. Heck, the smart money would say otherwise. But I know damn sure that I’ll be watching. Just in case it happens. Go U-S-A.
The semifinals and final of the women’s 100 meter hurdles at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London will be Tuesday, August 7th.