The story of Lolo Jones is as American as her heartland roots, a tale of victory over hardship, of success through hard work, from a homeless child living in a church basement to a vivacious talent on the brink of stardom.
A breakthrough Olympic performance from the 100-meter hurdler would give U.S. track and field a jolt of energy and emotion it surely can use. Not to mention a telegenic face that mixes French, African-American, Native American and Norwegian ancestry.
Gold is a real possibility for Jones, who is peaking athletically as she starts to get discovered outside of the sport and beyond her native Iowa.
Jones ran the fastest time in the world this year in qualifying for her first Olympics, following a season in which she placed in the top three in every race. She has climbed the hard way to the role of favorite in the 100-meter hurdles.
Well, not THE favorite—just “one of the favorites,” she insists.
“I don’t believe there’s ever a favorite in the hurdles, just because there’s 10 obstacles,” Jones said. “If you hit one of those obstacles, you go from first to third just like that.”
Qualifying begins Sunday in an event that has been a reliable source of medals for the U.S. the past two Olympics.
The U.S. team, while potentially dominant in Beijing, has few dominant personalities. Jones could add that dash of spice—in an event that isn’t typically glamorous.
She hasn’t been hyped, certainly not like sprinters Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards, who at one point were supposed to be double individual medal contenders and potential rivals in the 200 and 400. That’s not to say Jones has gotten no attention.
An ice sculpture of her is promised this week at the Iowa State Fair. Her planned race against a horse created some Internet buzz—except she said it’s not happening.
“I have a hard enough time with creatures that have two legs,” Jones said.
Well, she hedged, maybe if the money was right.
Her first name is as unusual as her last is pedestrian. Born Lori Jones, she became Lolo to distinguish her from her mother, also Lori.
Long before she became a hurdler, Jones was clearing obstacles.
She grew up with a single mother in a family of six. Her father was in and out of jail.
“When we couldn’t pay the rent, we had to move,” Jones said.
Things got so bad that for a time they lived in a Des Moines church basement.
“I remember at first I was just going to day camp there, and the next thing you know we’re living in the bottom of the basement,” Jones said. She would sneak upstairs to the camp so other kids didn’t know she was homeless.
Life took the young girl from neighborhood to neighborhood, town to town.
Five different elementary schools. Three different middle schools.
“And then in high school,” Jones said, “my mom wanted to move again.”
Not Jones. She was developing as an athlete, especially in track.
“‘I cannot move,’” Jones said she told her mom. “‘I need to get grounded.’”
So her mother moved on, and Lolo stayed behind in Des Moines.
“Instead of four different high schools, I lived with four different families in high school,” she said.
With friends, with a family that would take her in through high school, except in the summer, when she had to find another place to stay because the couple’s son would come home from college.
“I just wanted to get out of poverty,” she said. “I knew what my mom was experiencing, she was working two jobs to help feed us. I just knew getting to college was the answer.”
At Theodore Roosevelt High School, Jones excelled, and earned a scholarship to track powerhouse LSU.
Her college career was successful if not spectacular. After failing to make the U.S. team for Athens—not even making the finals at the 2004 Olympic trials — she was at a crossroads.
“I was like, ‘Do I pursue track and field knowing I’m not going to be getting paid for a while or just use my economics degree and go get a regular job?’” Jones said.
She chose track, even though it meant living off credit cards. To save money, she’d leave the air conditioning off in her apartment in the Louisiana heat.
Jones got a part-time job at Home Depot, another as a restaurant hostess and a third as a personal trainer in a gym.
In the summer of 2005, she headed to Europe with one pair of ragged track shoes. She won a race in Italy and was top four in three others.
She got her shoe endorsement with Asics, but she still remained a notch below the best. Americans were everywhere: Joanna Hayes was the 2004 Olympic gold medalist, Michelle Perry the 2007 world champion and Ginnie Powell the up-and-coming threat.
“My first couple of years I’d be in the top five and the last couple of years I’d be in the top three,” Jones said. “I remember last year I had like 12 meets in a row at third. I was like, ‘Goodness gracious, can I ever win?’”
The answer came this year.
First, she won the world indoor 60-meter hurdle title. She rolled into the U.S. Olympic trials in the best shape of her life. She set a personal best at 12.45 seconds in the semifinals, then followed with a near-flawless race in the finals, pulling away from the talented field to win in a wind-aided 12.29.
That matched the second-fastest 100-meter hurdles ever run under any conditions.
“In the indoor season she was on fire,” U.S. women’s Olympic coach Jeanette Bolden said. “The energy and the enthusiasm she showed indoors you could see just springboard her into what she did at the trials.”
Now Jones is in Beijing, a favorite, if not THE favorite, a week past her 26th birthday, the hunted after being the frustrated hunter for so long—a gold medal away from wider glory.
Her mom is here, too, taking a break from her job on the night shift at Wal-Mart.
“I’m taking it like I took all the other championships this year,” Jones said. “I still feel like the underdog, like I have something to prove.”