SOCHI, Russia — Lolo Jones is telling the story about how she became a bobsledder, her words becoming difficult to decipher as she tries to keep herself from crying.
So she wraps the tale up quickly, her eyes welling with tears. She shouts the four words: “They had my back.”
Of all the words Jones said Monday, they might have been the most telling. It’s no secret that she wasn’t going to win popularity contests with her U.S. track and field teammates, especially after enjoying some spoils of fame despite failing to win a hurdles medal in either the Beijing Games of 2008 or the London Olympics four years later.
As a hurdler, she was always alone, often feeling unwanted. As a bobsledder, she’s never alone — her teammates go just about anywhere she does. And despite some faux complaining from her about that, it’s clear Jones is enjoying her trip to the Sochi Games more than anyone would have guessed when she showed up in Lake Placid, N.Y., for a tryout in the fall of 2012.
“From the first week they accepted me, they embraced me, they lifted me up, and I think it was what I needed to not only be a bobsled athlete but return back to track with my head held high and proud of the things I have achieved in that sport,” Jones said. “So I really am grateful for them. I’m almost about to cry because they really gave me a fresh start, for sure.”
Jones is one of three brakemen on the women’s team, and U.S. officials plan to announce this week the driver-pusher pairings for the competition. Drama tends to find Jones at any Olympics, and this one is no exception, with some members of the national team questioning why she was selected over such experienced pushers as Emily Azevedo and Katie Eberling — both of whom openly aired their frustrations about not making the squad.
Once Jones was picked to the team, conspiracy theories started coming out. NBC played a role, some said. Others felt the U.S. Olympic Committee hoped to capitalize on Jones’ popularity. (For the record, American officials not just deny, but laugh at those notions.) Azevedo was quoted as saying Jones’ Twitter followers — 377,293 of them as of Monday morning — helped make her a more attractive candidate to the selection committee.
Jones expected some naysayers to question her being selected. She didn’t expect how big the storm would be after the pick was revealed.
“This is a sequel,” Jones said, drawing a parallel between this and how some track teammates complained that her popularity soared without winning a medal in Beijing or London. “I just wasn’t prepared for it. … I definitely didn’t feel it coming this time, but it’s hard when you don’t make a team. I think sometimes people forget that.”
She seems perfectly content now. Jones and fellow first-time Olympic push athlete Lauryn Williams, another Summer Games veteran who won a silver medal in the 100-meter dash in 2004 and helped the U.S. win gold in the 4×100-meter relay in London, will become the ninth and 10th Americans to compete in both the summer and winter versions of the games.
“I’ve gotten to see her over the last six months, see how hard she’s working toward this and she won’t be outworked by anyone,” Williams said. “She put in every effort and she’s as deserving as everyone on this team. It was really tough to see the hurt on all sides, and without picking sides. What they did wasn’t right, but at the same time, you know it was from a place of deep hurt.”
On Monday, Jones was doing more laughing and smiling than crying.
She was joking with Elana Meyers, one of the three pilots, on her walk to the media center about how if it hadn’t been for falling short in Beijing and London, she wouldn’t be in Sochi. Jones went to Lake Placid looking to escape her Olympic troubles, not thinking about a new Olympic path, and it was Meyers and fellow pilot Jazmine Fenlator who were among the first to befriend the hurdler.
Jones was depressed, underweight after not really eating for a month or so after London, and in desperate need of change. Fenlator didn’t even recognize Jones, thinking instead she was a distance runner because of her much leaner-than-usual build at the time.
“I mean, I have legit stats or whatever but sometimes you kind of forget those especially if you get thrown under the bus so many times in the media,” Jones said. “I’ve even been thrown under the bus by my teammates in track and field. So to go into the training center and they barely knew me and they kind of just took me under their wing and were like, âNo, you’re one of us.'”
That’s when the tears started to fall.
Make no mistake: These Olympics mean plenty to Jones.
“I truly believe that your greatest failures or mishaps in life can have the best motivation for you to do something amazing,” Jones said. “I’ve just kind of taken that stance and that’s really why I feel like I’m here as a bobsled athlete. I’m not willing to give up.”