SOCHI, Russia — Lolo Jones knew the criticism would come. Months before USA Bobsled named its women’s Olympic team, the hurdler-turned-brakeman braced for the impact of that announcement. She understood that, whether she made or missed the team, it would “create a firestorm.”
Still, Jones remained committed to her new sport, the one that offered a cold escape from the disappointments and controversies that swirled around her track and field career.
“My job is the same as it’s always been,” said Jones. “I want to go to the Olympics and I want to win a medal. That goal has never changed.
“If I have to take a whole bunch of crazy bad Twitter replies or hate mail or [people] saying I get more publicity, I don’t care. For that 1 percent that I inspire who say, ‘Man, she came so close to a medal so many times and she didn’t give up, instead she’s found a new way to go after her goal,’ it was all worth it.”
The Olympic team nominations came in mid-January, and Jones proved a perfect forecaster. She made the team 16 months after she started bobsledding. Then the criticism and conspiracy theories followed.
Was she selected because of her celebrity status in a sport that receives little attention outside of the Winter Games? Did NBC influence the decision-making because it wanted a US sports star, especially one with magazine-cover looks and high Q rating? Was she really a better bobsled pusher than US veterans who spent years refining their skills and reaching medal podiums like reigning world silver medalist Katie Eberling?
All the talk forced USA Bobsled to defend its decision. Reporters were told it was a “close call” and “the trending was going toward Lolo.”
Now, blocking out the backlash, Jones will start her third quest for an Olympic medal on Tuesday. And she will be competing against fellow Summer Olympian and sprinter Lauryn Williams, who entered bobsled with much less fanfare than Jones.
In a surprise move, Williams, a gold medalist in the 4 x 100 relay in London who took up bobsled last July, was matched with pilot Elana Meyers in USA-1, considered the top sled. Meyers and Williams struggled early in training runs but seem to have worked out the kinks. in time for the competition
Asked about representing the US in the Olympics so soon after she started bobsledding, Williams said, “It comes and goes in waves of reality and living in an animated world.”
Jones is experiencing a similarly surreal transition. The hurdler will be brakeman for USA-3, viewed as the third-best sled, behind pilot Jazmine Fenlator. Jones hopes to leave Sochi with the Olympic medal that eluded her as a 100-meter hurdler at the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012 London Games.
“You’re fighting for that Olympic dream,” said Jones. “You’re fighting for that gold medal. At the end of the day, that’s what I’ve always wanted, to be able to stand on that podium and hear the national anthem.
“It doesn’t matter what sport. When you’re wearing Team USA, it does not feel different if you’re in a bobsled uniform or a track uniform. You get the same chills. Well, maybe you’re a little bit colder in bobsled.”
Taken for a wild ride
During a charity event two years before the London Olympics, Jones met Meyers. and they started joking around
“You know what?” said Meyers. “You’d be really good at bobsled.”
Jones laughed at the thought. At the time, she was focused on redemption at the Summer Games. After entering the 100-meter hurdles final in Beijing as the gold-medal favorite, Jones clipped the ninth of 10 hurdles and did not medal. She set her sights on a podium finish in London.
But in heartbreaking fashion, Jones finished one-10th of a second out of medal position in the 100-meter final. She received a lot of negative attention for much the same reason her place on the bobsled team stirred controversy: Some criticized the attention Jones received for finishing fourth and wondered whether fame meant more to her than athletic success.
By the end of the London Games, she needed a break from track and field and the intense spotlight that came with it. Jones thought about what Meyers had said a couple years earlier. She wondered how to start in bobsledding and reached out to Meyers via Twitter. It wasn’t long before Jones traveled to Lake Placid, N.Y., and took her first bobsled run.
“I think I blocked out a lot of it,” said Jones. “You’re definitely nervous. I remember telling myself, ‘Just go for it. Don’t back off on the start.’ I pushed pretty decent on my first start, then you get in and your adrenaline is so high you don’t remember much.
“Once it’s actually going, I remember thinking, ‘I wish there was a button and I was a pilot and I could eject.’ I just wished I could get out of there so fast.
“In my head, I was trying to count the curves. I got so discombobulated that I lost count. Then, I started praying, ‘God, please make it over. Please make it over.’ Then it finally ended.”
Surprisingly, Jones saw a future in bobsled. She learned to enjoy fast, wild rides on tracks in the US and across Europe. She embraced the long training days with teammates that lasted six to nine hours, including a couple of hours in the garage maintaining and adjusting sleds.
It was a welcome change from individual track workouts that usually lasted no more than 90 minutes. Most of all, she liked the team dynamic, the fact brakemen take a back seat in the sled and often cede whatever media attention that comes to the pilots.
“In bobsled, the brakemen aren’t supposed to talk,” said Jones. “They told me, ‘When you race, you’re probably not going to get that many interviews.’
“That was at a point when I was actually getting bashed in the media. I actually don’t want to talk. I was like, ‘Go ahead, Jaz.’ It was great to be in the background and be the person who supports your teammate. That was really nice, to be honest.”
Although Jones didn’t stay in the background for long, she still found a comfortable winter home with the US bobsled team.
Growing into the sport
Growing up destitute and occasionally homeless in Iowa, Jones respects the blue-collar nature of bobsled. She uses money earned in track to support her bobsled career, estimating that she has paid more than $15,000 for plane tickets, housing, and extra food to bulk up for her new sport. But in a Vine video, Jones mocked a $741.84 paycheck from the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and again created controversy.
The poor attempt at social media humor was not well-received. Olympic bobsled champion Steve Holcomb called the video a “slap in the face” and “snobby,” especially since Jones receives prominent sponsorships for track and enjoys tremendous financial support compared with other bobsledders.
Yet it is hard to question her respect for bobsled and devotion to the physical and technical aspects of the sport. Just take one look at her changed physique. Jones transformed herself from a 130-pound hurdler to an almost 160-pound bobsledder, bulking up on Weight Gainer shakes mixed with heavy whipping cream and double bacon cheeseburgers.
There was a month when she ate 9,000 calories a day to build the extra mass necessary to push a 400-pound sled.
As a result of the added pounds, Jones has lost some of the flexibility needed for hurdling. She knows she cannot go much beyond 160.
“I kind of have to rein it back in and shut this factory down,” she said. “If not, I’m not going to be able to go back to track.”
Come track season, she will try to drop back down to around 135 pounds.
Recalling the early days after Jones joined the US team, Fenlator said, “I was super, super impressed with her talent. She came in off London, getting fourth place at around 130 pounds. Then, in a month and a half, she put on 15 pounds. It wasn’t a bad 15 pounds. The girl was stronger than ever. She’s a powerful athlete dedicated to being the best of the best.”
Jones will put her faith and medal hopes in Fenlator’s hands. While the US coaches mixed and matched pilots and brakemen throughout the World Cup season, looking for the most successful combinationsJones and Fenlator demonstrated chemistry almost from the moment Jones started her adventure.
In November 2012, at the World Cup opener in Lake Placid, Jones and Fenlator won silver. It was Fenlator’s first World Cup medal. It was Jones’s third week bobsledding.
“She really showed then that she has what it takes to be a bobsledder, not just a track and field star,” said Fenlator. “She’s been asked, ‘If you win a medal in both, which is going to be your favorite?’ She really doesn’t know. She’s learned to love bobsled.”
And in many ways, bobsled has returned that love.
“The world of bobsled has embraced me and protected me,” said Jones.
But it’s likely that sense of protection will end when the competition starts. Given her history on the Olympic stage and the kind of attention her performances generate, Jones will either come away with that elusive medal or spark more controversy, or maybe both.Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer