Jones' dream of Olympic medal turns to winter
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Sit uncomfortably through the 10-hour flight from JFK in New York to Moscow. Connect to a two-hour flight south to Sochi on the Black Sea. Negotiate awkwardly with a Russian taxi driver to drive you 30 winding, potholed miles into the soaring Caucasus Mountain range. Follow slowly behind an endless snake of cement trucks, dump trucks and earth movers. Reach the massive, muddy construction zone that will be the alpine site for next year's Winter Games. Turn right past the security guards for a short climb up to 2014 Olympic sliding center.
That leads you to the bobsled track, the latest venue where Lolo Jones is constructing a second Olympic career.
"She's got her hand on every sled," U.S. bobsled coach and five-time Olympian Brian Shimer says at the team hotel as the team readies for another session of runs at the Olympic test event. "She's doing the hard, blue-collar work. She's not just showing up at the top of the track and wondering, 'Where's my sled, I'm ready to push.' That is really good to see.
"Most of our athletes who come in from other sports don't realize the hard work that it takes to get to the top of the hill at the Olympics and do your push. They don't realize all the work that entails. Picking up your sled first thing in the morning, putting it on a truck; getting to the top of the track, taking it off the truck, putting it on its side and flipping it over to sand the runner, then dragging it to the start line.
"We see athletes come in from a different sport, such as track and field, and they're not used to that and they really fall off toward the end of the season. But Lolo just continues to get better. She's on the other curve where she's really picking it up quick."
The bobsled track here is unusual in that it has three uphill sections, but do not confuse it with a roller-coaster ride. Riding a bobsled is not riding a roller coaster, as Jones will quickly tell you.
"It's more like a car crash or a plane crash. You absolutely feel like everything is going to [break apart]," Jones says. "There's a lot of noise, you feel a lot of pressure, you're getting banged around on the inside, you're getting tossed around. They asked me to describe it in a YouTube video, and I said it was like someone put me in a metal garbage can and threw me off the top of Mount Everest."
Mind you, that's what the bobsled feels like when everything goes right. But ride a bobsled enough times and eventually things will not go right and you will crash. Jones' first crash came on the track in Wintenberg, Germany in December when she was riding a sled down with driver Elana Meyers.
"That was the one thing I didn't want to do," Meyers says. "We've got these Olympic track stars here and I don't want to crash. I don't want to be known as the person who crashed Lolo Jones. And lo and behold, I'm the person who crashed Lolo Jones."
When the sled stopped, Meyers scrambled out to see whether Jones was all right, frantic that she had just ruined the career of an Olympic hurdler. Fortunately, she found Jones unharmed and with a big grin spreading across her face. Relieved, Meyers congratulated Jones and told the hurdler she was now officially a bobsledder.
"They have this saying in bobsledding that you're not a bobsledder until you crash. I told them, 'That's stupid,'" Jones says. "I would never tell a hurdler you're not a hurdler until you crash. We're actually positive thinkers in hurdles. If you get over the hurdle, then you're a hurdler."
Of course, you crash in that sport as well.
Olympic fans know the story. Back in 2008, Jones was mere moments from winning gold in the 100 hurdles at the Beijing Olympics when her foot caught the second-to-last hurdle, sending her body, her years of work and dreams crashing painfully to the track. To train so long and so hard and then trip mere steps from gold? And to know it would take four years to get a second chance?
She eventually overcame the disappointment, plus a career-threatening hamstring injury and a tethered spine condition, to make last summer's Olympic team. She went to London determined to redeem herself. This time, she ran a season-best 12.58 and finished fourth, missing a medal by one-tenth of a second. One-tenth of a second!
Jones was so distraught immediately after the race that she said she wasn't sure whether she wanted to run again at the 2016 Olympics, even if she could make the team at age 34. "I always wanted Rio to be my last Olympics, but having had two bittersweet Olympics, I'm like now I don't know," she said that evening in tears. "Every time I come [to the Olympics], I get burned."
The next day, Jones said she did indeed plan to come back in 2016, but admitted this week that the painfully close fourth-place finish left her so depressed she did little more than sit in her home and watch TV for the following month. She also let negative comments from media and teammates about seeking publicity -- she received more attention for not medaling than Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells did for winning medals -- fester and eat away at her. As the days passed and her depression worsened, Jones knew she needed something to take her mind off the disappointment.
"Whenever I've had problems in my life or been in a stressful situation, I've always used physical activity to kind of release that," she says. "Well, two things -- going to church and praying, and then physical activity as in running. And I felt that with it not being time to start the next track season, bobsled season was ready to go."
Actually, Meyers planted the bobsled seed in 2010, when she and Jones briefly met at a Women's Sports Foundation function. Meyers, always on the lookout for possible bobsledders, decided to try her pitch on Jones. "You never know who's going to bite," Meyers recalls. "So I told her about bobsledding and that she should try it. She was like, 'Yeah, whatever.'"
Jones didn't give the proposal much thought at the time -- "I don't think Elana actually thought I would do it at the time," she says -- but the idea remained in the back of her mind. After the disappointment in London, she contacted Meyers. "OK," she said, "how do I do this?"
A two-man bobsled team has a driver and a brakeman (or pusher). Driving skills take years of experience to develop, years of learning to drive by feel as much as sight, to gain the nuances of tracks across the globe. A brakeman's development curve is much, much quicker. The role requires explosive speed and power, which makes sprinters excellent candidates for the position.
Herschel Walker, a sprinter in college, was a pusher for the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. Wide receiver and world-class sprinter Willie Gault pushed at the 1988 Olympics. Edwin Moses, perhaps the greatest hurdler in history, pushed for Shimer's sled on the World Cup circuit. And now, there is Jones.
"Hurdlers really focus on technique, which is important," Shimer says. "It's just their background for them, coming from such a technical event like hurdling."
There's a lot of noise, you feel a lot of pressure, you're getting banged around on the inside, you're getting tossed around. They asked me to describe it in a YouTube video and I said it was like someone put me in a metal garbage can and threw me off the top of Mount Everest.Lolo Jones on what it is like to ride in a bobsled
Searching for the best pushers possible, the U.S. bobsled team recruited a number of top track stars for a combine in Lake Placid, N.Y., including heptathlete Hyleas Fountain, 4x100 gold medalist Tianna Madison and Jones.
Offered a spot on the bobsled team, Jones took it, though that meant skipping the indoor track season. "I gave up a lot of money," she says. "Bobsledders don't make that much. In one race in track and field, I can make what a bobsledder makes in a whole season. That kind of breaks my heart for them."
On the other hand, Jones has gotten to travel throughout Europe to such glamorous locales as St. Moritz, Switzerland, even if she has to haul a sled around. Bobsled also has kept her in the spotlight (which can't hurt with her endorsements) and brought welcome attention to her team. When Jones earned a gold medal two weekends ago as part of the combined bobsled-skeleton team competition, it brought national headlines to the sport.
"She's a champion in every sense of the word, regardless of whether or not she's won an Olympic medal," Meyers says. "She brings such an enthusiasm to our team. She's very passionate, very hard-working. The same way she attacks track and field, going out there to win, she attacks in bobsled.
"She's worked really hard to make the Olympic team and we'll see how it turns out."
Jones says when the Olympic bobsled test event concludes next weekend, she will take a brief break before throwing herself into the outdoor track and field season. When that season ends, she will return to bobsled, determined to make the 2014 team and go for an Olympic medal while not giving up hopes for Rio.
"At first, my main goal was to see if I liked it and just use that as a distraction from the Summer Olympics and running," Jones said. "I think I've had some success in it now and it's actually hard work that I like, and it's distracting to have a new goal, so Winter Olympics."
U.S. women's bobsled coach Todd Hays says Jones' chances of earning one of the three likely brakeman spots on next year's Olympic team are very high, but she faces stiff competition. Among them are Madison, who also will compete in track this summer, plus fellow newcomer Aja Evans, who destroyed push records at this fall's combine.
"She's got a lot of potential, but it's going to be difficult if she wants to still hurdle and compete in bobsled," gold medalist driver Steven Holcomb says of Jones. "Because you have to lose a lot of weight to be a hurdler and you have to gain a lot of weight to be a bobsledder. It's a bit of a challenge there."
Jones maintains the bobsled season integrates well with her track schedule. Interestingly, the track and field world championships are in Moscow this August, so Jones plans to be back in Russia again. She aims to be back there again for the Winter Olympics, where she is hoping her personal construction projects will be complete along with the resort venue.
She's prepared. "My Russian visa is good for three years."