Hurdler Lolo Jones sees a different picture of herself in London Olympics
For four years after the 1996 Olympics, legendary Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj kept a photo on his bedroom wall of the fall in the 1,500-meter final that likely kept him from winning the race in Atlanta. Haunted by the memory, El Guerrouj, the greatest miler in history, used it as motivation for an exorcism that eventually took place at the 2004 Summer Games, when he finally took home Olympic gold and became the second person -- after Finland's Paavo Nurmi in 1924 -- to win the 1,500 and 5,000 at the same Olympics.U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones needs no such personal daily reminder of how she finished seventh in the high hurdles final at the 2008 Olympics.
When she runs in a televised meet in the United States, they replay the video of her stumbling over the penultimate 33-inch-high barrier with the gold medal almost in her grasp. When she lines up for a start, no matter where, they nearly always introduce her as the "girl who was leading the Olympic race..."'
"You know they're not going to forget it; I'm not going to forget it,'' Jones said before winning her second U.S. high hurdles title Saturday before family and friends from her high school days in Des Moines. "So the only way to wash this away is to kind of fix what happened.''
People kept telling Jones, 27, the cleansing would begin at last year's world championships. But she failed to make the U.S. team for that meet after locking arms with Michelle Perry going over the fourth hurdle in the semifinals at the 2009 nationals. Thrown off-balance, Jones stopped running before the next hurdle.
"That was like two slaps in the face -- two major hits,'' she said, "I'm like: 'There's no redemption. There's nothing.' That's when people start saying: 'Maybe she still can't come back. Maybe she'll never be on top again.' I think I used all the hurts and the painful things as motivation to train.''
Her goal for 2010, a year without a major outdoor international championship for U.S. athletes, was a second straight world indoor title. Jones won that in March.
"I can't be sour about what has happened,'' she said. "I can only look at the positive sides of it.''
One came from the public reaction to how graciously she handled the Olympic defeat, congratulating her rivals and fighting through tears to handle media obligations. Several people sent e-mails to the customer service address of Asics, her shoe and equipment sponsor, saying how much Jones' behavior had inspired and impressed them.
That is why Asics never wavered in its decision to renew a contract with Jones that had expired after the 2008 Olympics. Not only that, the company increased the contract in each of the upcoming four years (through the 2012 Olympics) by giving her part of what would have been the gold medal bonus.
"So there I [was], an athlete who just lost a gold medal, and the Olympics is our money-maker,'' Jones said. "Every four years, we have a chance to secure our future.
"I know of athletes who won medals and got cut" by their sponsors. Asics "could have dropped me, but they didn't. For them to do that (re-sign her and add the bonus) was huge. I couldn't believe it.''
Said Ben Cesar, the Asics athletes' representative in the United States: "She could have easily thrown a tantrum or shunned the media [in Beijing], but instead she showed the world the kind of person she is.''
(Asics America, something of a "boutique'' shop in track and field -- 27 athletes, only one of whom, marathoner Deena Kastor, has won an Olympic or world outdoor medal -- was similarly magnanimous to Kara Patterson after she set a U.S. record in the javelin last week. It not only gave Patterson a contractual record bonus of $25,000 but also added that amount to her base contract for each of the next two years. The Japanese sporting goods manufacturer seems to take seriously its adaptation of the Latin epigram that became the company name: Anima sana in corpore sano -- ``a sound spirit in a sound body.'')
With her income guaranteed, Jones saw no reason to change anything about her training. She stayed in Baton Rouge, La., to continue working with her college coach, LSU's Dennis Shaver. She uses the same workouts as she did nine years ago as a college freshman.
Jones had the world's fastest time in 2008, was second in 2009 and is fastest so far this season. But she has yet to get over the stumbling block of winning a medal at the Olympics or outdoor worlds. She wonders if working with a sports psychologist might help.
"They're really expensive,'' Jones said. "I need a sponsorship. Any sports psychologists who want to work with an Olympic hurdler to get over the ninth hurdle, please contact me.''
She knows that hurdle will loom larger as the 2012 Olympics approach. She thinks about the London Games several times a week. "I know that going into London, everybody is going to play up that sobby story,'' she said. Lolo Jones gets the big picture without having to look at it every day.
-- Philip Hersh in Des Moines
Photos, from top: Lolo Jones looks in disbelief at the replay of the stumble that cost her Olympic gold; credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times; Jones exults after winning the high hurdles Saturday at the U.S. Championships; credit: Charlie Niebergall / Associated Press