WHO: Marion Jones
WHAT: The words burst forth from Marion Jones. Strong and fast and passionate, even over the phone from her home in Austin, Texas. She talks for a living now. She talks about herself — and there’s a lot say. Jones was on the University of North Carolina’s championship women’s basketball team in 1994. As a sprinter and long jumper at the 2000 Sydney Games, she became the first female to win five medals at a single Olympics. But the world’s fastest woman was surrounded by speculation she was using performance-enhancing drugs, though she denied it at every turn. In October 2007, she admitted that she had used steroids and was soon sentenced to six months in prison for lying to federal investigators. She served her time and returned her medals. Since her release, the mother of three has played a season and a half in the WNBA, and, two months ago, served as an envoy on a US State Department trip. She will speak today at the Massachusetts Conference for Women at the Convention Center and tomorrow at UMass-Boston.
Q. Let’s see: NCAA basketball, Olympics, scandal, prison, WNBA . . . US envoy to Croatia. Please connect the dots. How did that come about?
A. I attribute so much that has happened, positive stuff that has happened in my life, to my faith. The fact that I believe that things could turn around, even in my darkest hour, I just kept believing that God would turn my life around, that He would let me see really what my purpose in life was and at some point get past some of the mistakes, all of the mistakes I made, and instead of looking back just keep on looking forward. . . . While I was playing in Tulsa [in the WNBA] this past season, we got a call from the State Department wanting to know if I’d be interested in this program that they have in a bunch of the embassies throughout the world. This program brings in American celebrities, Americans who are experts in their field, to try and help foreign relations.
Q. Had you ever been to that part of the world before?
‘Every time I travel . . . I get up and I tell people this is what I did, these are the mistakes that I made. . . . It’s not candy-coated, and I think a lot of people appreciate that.’
A. I had actually run in Zagreb a number of years ago. But it was the first time I had been back over since everything that happened to me a few years ago. . . . So I was a little nervous how people would really receive me because they remembered me as this sports superstar and now I was there in a much different capacity. So I was hesitant to accept. Then we just decided it would be a great opportunity to take the message across the water overseas and see how it goes.
I’ll have to tell you I was so wonderfully surprised, excited at how well my message was received by the young people. . . . I think the people in the State Department felt that I would just be a really good match because I’m somebody who’s also rebuilding. I’ve been through tough times and I’ve struggled to kind of pull myself out of it. Hopefully, I’m a good source of hope and inspiration for these young people, that you don’t give up, you fight! You fight until you achieve success again. I’ve been invited to go back to a couple of other countries in the new year. I’m very excited about that whole opportunity.
Q. That’s a great phone call to get from the feds.
A. (laughs) Let me tell you! I’ve had other phone calls that haven’t been as pleasant, as you can imagine! (laughs) Thankfully for us it was something that was extremely positive. . . . I think what it comes down to is that I’m not trying to get anything out of this. Every time I travel, or even this week when I go up to UMass-Boston or the [Massachusetts Conference for Women], I don’t candy-coat it. I get up and I tell people this is what I did, these are the mistakes that I made, this is how I was able to get past it. And this is how you, too, can make better choices in your own life. It’s not candy-coated, and I think a lot of people appreciate that.
I know, particularly in the sports world, that there are a lot of people that will never ever forgive me - I understand that - or want to listen to me - and I understand all that. But if I really spend my time focusing on that small, small group of people then I really won’t get anywhere. Generally, everyone that approaches me or contacts me sees the big picture here, that, hey, OK, you made a mistake and they were pretty bad, and I acknowledge that, but what you are trying to do now is extremely positive. So I think the State Department recognized that.
For information on the Massachusetts Conference for Women, go to www.maconferenceforwomen.org. For information on Marion Jones’s talk at UMass-Boston, go to www.umb.edu/news_events_media/events/a_conversation_with_marion_jones)
John Vitti can be reached at email@example.com.